Lawyers could help stave off potential advice deserts in the coming year by sharing knowledge and experience.
Transforming legal aid. That is how the government sold its last set of changes before they came into force. Twelve months later and with the benefit of hindsight I would say that ‘transforming’ is exactly right, but perhaps not in the way that was intended.
Few could argue that aiming to rein in public spending is a bad thing, but last year’s cuts were not the way to go about it. The changes have sent the legal system reeling and left consumers more vulnerable than ever.
More unrepresented people in courts, more frustration for judges, long cases and bigger queues – these have already been the consequences. New ideas to keep cases out of the courts have been rushed to deal with the backlogs as fears of an ‘advice desert’ during the year ahead grow stronger.
And for the legal profession, removal of legal aid for clients and pay cuts of up to 30% overnight have left more firms than we would like to admit struggling to make ends meet. Once-healthy businesses are facing closure or having to merge just to stay afloat.
With a further 8.75% cut in fees for criminal cases to be introduced in the next few months, worst-case scenarios predict as many as two-thirds of affected independent firms could be forced to close their doors.
I have nothing but admiration for those lawyers still active in legal aid – my own practice has shifted its focus towards privately funded areas and business-related investigations such as regulatory and professional disciplinary instead. We still accept some legal aid work but have to check each time that we will still be able to do a proper job.
Of those firms still soldiering on though, many do so without realising the consequences it is now having on their own businesses and their financial viability.
We are also recruiting independent lawyers as consultants who work on a fee-share basis. They operate under our umbrella and supervision but retain flexibility about their working hours. This is helping us to develop and expand our practice by introducing expertise in a wider range of work types and at a faster rate than traditional recruitment would allow.
The majority of solicitors I know first qualified so that they could help people, and there are few people needing our help more than legal aid recipients. I know that is what first brought me to practise law.
However, that desire to offer discounted or free advice to the communities we serve has only been made possible by the fact that a successful, profitable practice operates behind it.
We are all running businesses after all, and if there isn’t any profit, there isn’t any business.
Yet firms are now struggling to go above and beyond for their legal aid clients and still make enough money to run their firms. Instead, they are forced to do just what they are paid to do, nothing more.
Whether further cuts in 2015 will lead us to an ‘advice desert’ remains to be seen, but I am confident that we won’t see any more money for legal aid for a while longer yet. So it falls to the profession to cut its cloth and that will mean hard decisions including a reduction in services.
Members like myself offer their experience to legal professionals at all levels, from trainee solicitors right up to senior partners.
Independent firms now have to be able to work quickly and flexibly in order to survive – for many, sharing knowledge and experience might just make all the difference.
Richard Nelson is president of the Nottinghamshire Law Society 2014/15 and senior partner at Richard Nelson LLP