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Levelling up: justice has a key role, government told

By Monidpa Fouzder >>

(5 October 2021)

The government must, at a minimum, maintain current levels of spending to allow the legal sector to play its part in ‘levelling up’ the country, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce has told the Conservative Party conference.

A white paper led by prime minister Boris Johnson will be published this autumn setting out the government’s plan to ‘level up’ opportunities across all parts of the UK. Rishi Sunak will unveil the outcome of his Spending Review this month.

Boyce told a fringe event, attended by solicitor general Alex Chalk QC MP, yesterday that the justice system and legal services sector help to drive levelling up by providing vital legal advice to small businesses on everyday issues; creating high-paying professional jobs in areas outside of the traditional metropolitan hubs; and empowering local people to use the law to take resolve issues that blight their lives and communities.

Boyce said the legal services sector depended on the courts estate. ‘As well as being the venues for the resolution of legal issues that local people may find themselves embroiled in, courts also act as anchors for hubs of legal businesses.’ Small and medium-sized towns tend to be worse served by the court estate than the big cities, she added.

An uplift in fees was urgently needed to save more firms from going out of business and deepening gaps in legal aid provision across the country.

Boyce said smaller firms that dominate smaller towns cannot afford to cover trainees’ qualification costs and suggested making publicly funded loans available to Solicitors Qualifying Exam candidates. To address regional disparities in the adoption of technology, she suggested a scheme similar to Singapore’s Tech-celerate for Law, which provides grants to SME law firms.

‘In order to allow the legal sector to play its part in levelling up the country the government must at minimum commit to maintaining current levels of spending on the justice system. While it may be tempting to seek efficiencies in justice spending, the reality is that the majority of the burden of any cuts will fall on small and medium-sized towns and rural areas that are already comparatively underserved by the infrastructure of the justice system,’ Boyce said.

Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC told the event that the government should consider non-means tested legal aid for domestic abuse cases as part of its levelling up agenda. He warned the government that its campaign to recruit 20,000 extra police officers and treatment of serious sexual offending will be a ‘massive own goal’, as an underfunded criminal justice system would be unable to keep up with what the government wants to do.

Garden Court North barrister Ciara Bartlam, co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, said funding early legal advice must be a priority so that lawyers have time to properly advise their clients. She revealed that in her first year of practice, she was earning £9.50 an hour. 

Yesterday’s event was organised by the Law Society, Bar Council, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid and LawWorks.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)