When the EU referendum was held in June 2016, the Civil Service employed fewer people than at any time since the second world war – rather unhappily, given the result.
Numbers have rebounded a bit, but only to the extent of reversing about a third of the job cuts imposed in the peak austerity years from 2010. Now that a pandemic has been piled on top of Brexit, embattled mandarins probably feel they should be cut some slack when seeking to placate the many sectors clamouring for special treatment to stave off disaster.
Happily – if that is the right word – the Ministry of Justice is not short on numbers. Last December the MoJ overtook the DWP to become the biggest government department, employing over 70,000.
We can only hope, then, that Petty France (and the Treasury) has the capacity to assimilate what is now a full-blown crisis in the legal profession. New research by the Law Society (opposite) shows the window of opportunity won’t remain open for long.
One grim statistic can serve for many. There are just under 8,000 small firms, including sole practitioners. A survey based on a representative sample suggests in a worst-case scenario that dwindling cashflow and fee income could kill off over 60% of them within six months. That would be 5,000 law firms facing closure in 2020 – more than half of all those in existence. Two-thirds say they will even have trouble paying their professional indemnity insurance. A significant number of firm owners are already looking to quit the sector as a result of financial hardship.
There is a crumb of comfort in the fact that the survey was conducted before chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled the full panoply of measures designed to keep British business on life support. Over one in four small firms has sent staff on furlough, and one in three was looking into deferring tax payments. Yet this is nowhere near enough.
At the time of writing, for example, there was no sign of any decisive and urgent action to save legal aid firms, which are among the worst affected practices. Ministers also appear deaf to calls to reconsider the £50,000 profit threshold for self-employed support.
The government needs to listen – and act. Quickly.