Legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly has announced plans to scrap a Â£2.6 million per year training contract grant scheme. Since the scheme began in 2002 more than 750 trainees have benefited from grants of over Â£20,000 each to help cover their training fees and salary. The Legal Services Commission gave the grants to legal aid firms to allow them to fund 100% of the tuition fees of the Professional Skills Course, and to contribute towards Legal Practice Course fees and the traineeâ€™s salary for the two years of their training contract.
The Ministry of Justice claims that the cut is an important cost-saving measure. Their spokesman said that when the scheme was introduced, financial inducements were needed to attract more young lawyers into the legal aid market, but now there are too many lawyers chasing too little work. â€œThe grant scheme was a laudable idea, but the long-term future of legal aid is still assured, with enough young lawyers continuing to enter the profession,â€ he said. Those whose training is already being funded will be unaffected.
The decision has provoked anger from critics who say that the abolition of the scheme will undermine small legal firms who recruit from under-privileged backgrounds, as well as reducing the number of lawyers working in areas such as immigration and crime. Many will not be able to afford to undertake the lower paid work, and the decision could result in new lawyers turning toward more lucrative legal career paths. Laura Janes, chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, said: â€œIf the government takes away this tiny but important lifeline, the kind of people who want to use the law to help ordinary people will no longer be able to afford it. This government has not even commenced their analysis of the legal aid position yet, and they already seem to be committed to getting rid of diversity in legal aid provision,” She added: â€œThe provision of these grants went some way toward sustaining the flow of talented entrants into the legal aid sector, and making sure that legal aid work is not a closed door to applicants from poorer backgrounds.â€
Lord Bach, former legal aid minister, condemned the move, saying: â€œThis is a mean decision which will lead to some skilled and committed young lawyers not choosing the legal aid path, but looking to other parts of the law. Everyone knows that there may have to be some savings in the total legal aid budget, but to cancel this superb scheme which has worked so well for the last 8 years in order to save Â£2.6 million, looks petty and incredibly short-sighted.â€ Beth Forrester of the Junior Lawyers Division said: â€œThe JLD is acutely aware that the current financial climate has had a grave impact on the availability of training contracts throughout the profession, but we are very disappointed to see that those junior lawyers in particular, who are looking to progress in an area of law which is of maximum benefit to the community, are going to be hardest hit.â€
Last word to Laura Janes: “In this age of financial austerity, there is going to be more need than ever for the safety net of legal aid. What steps are the government going to take to ensure there is a next generation of properly supervised, qualified legal aid lawyers? Firms are dropping like flies and those left are going to be relying on armies of unqualified paralegals, who cannot deliver the level of quality the government claims it is committed to.”