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The destruction of Legal Aid by the Legal Services Commission?

This week we have been retained by the not for profit organisation in Kent, looking for a housing solicitor to deal with housing law at three county courts in the south Kent area.

The post has been part funded by Lottery funding by the looks of it, plus other sources as well as the Legal Services Commission. It has amazed me in the time I have been in the legal profession, which dates back to the mid 1990’s, the number of firms and organisations out there covering specialist advice such as welfare benefits, housing, employment, the non-criminal legal aid side also dramatically, in such a short space of time. I have to say that it looks as if the Legal Services Commission have decimated the provision of advice that was out there, and it has ended up with a small number of firms dealing with the work in areas of high concentration and the rest of it being left to Citizen’s Advice Bureaus and charities to deal with.

I always recall from my own days in practice that it was often the most difficult clients, the most awkward circumstances, who were in specific need of this sort of advice, and that when the work was dealt with, often at least half your time spent with the client could not be billed for even back in the days when the Legal Services Commission did not query every single item on a bill.

I fear for the future of this area of law, as my anecdotal experience as a recruiter is that it is often left to trainee solicitors and newly qualified solicitors if that to deal with, although the vast majority of the work is probably covered these days by non-qualified advisors at not for profit organisations. Non-qualified advisors are often very good, and if they are specialists, usually known a lot more than some of the more generalist solicitors. However it is a damning indictment on the Legal Services Commission that such practitioners are giving advice on such technical issues without or being able to refer to solicitors.

I have had a positive response from the housing solicitors registered with us in relation to this post simply because of the shortage of posts further into London and the south east, and the need to carry on working. However the salary levels on the post are pretty shocking for a qualified solicitor and it just goes to show how far behind the legal profession is when it comes to dealing with the bottom end of the market and the salaries that are offered.

If a three year qualified solicitor cannot earn more that £30,000 dealing with an area of law, I do not think it will be long before the vast majority have simply moved into other fields or cross qualified into another career and left the way open for yet another solicitor to come through and realise how awful practice can be in certain fields and areas of the UK. This may sound slightly disgruntled, but I am unable to see how the current situation will change in years to come unless providers like the legal services commission recognise the need for such a service, and start to fund it again.

I accept entirely having been in practice myself that there are a number of unscrupulous law firms out there who simply rack up the bills in order to get paid without actually providing much assistance to their clients. However the vast majority of law firms do not practice in these areas to make a massive profit, they practice in the area because it is their chosen career, their line of expertise and because they wanted to make a difference and help others. The problem with the Legal Services Commission, I suspect, is that they have no interest at all in this, and are more interested in budgets and accountability.

Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of Ten Percent Legal Recruitment, www.ten-percent.co.uk. He regularly commentates and provides advice to solicitors and law students free of charge at cv@ten-percent.co.uk

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