The bar faces an exodus of civil legal aid barristers as funding cuts force many to question their futures, a Bar Council survey has found.
An online poll on the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which drew responses from 643 barristers, shows a fall in case volumes for 72% of family barristers, 60% of civil barristers and 45% of respondents involved in civil litigation.
Fee income has fallen for 69% of family legal aid practitioners, 62% of civil legal aid barristers and 53% of civil litigators.
Despite this, the survey says the ‘majority’ of respondents have ‘no immediate plans’ to leave the bar, although a ‘significant minority’ were considering a move to judicial or other positions before 2015.
However, the survey suggests ‘many respondents’ are questioning the ‘viability’ of a career at the bar and ‘actively considering’ whether they have a long-term future post-LASPO.
The act, implemented in April 2013, removed large areas of civil legal aid from the scope of public funding, including most private law family, housing, education, welfare benefits and personal injury cases. The survey, which ran for three weeks from 1 April 2014, was completed with the help of Professor Graham Cookson from The University of Surrey.
The poll findings reinforce fears already articulated by many about the increase in litigants in person, increased delays in the courts and the difficulty faced by clients in accessing legal advice.
Of those respondents who worked in the family courts, 88% said there had been an increase in LiPs. Some 70% of respondents from civil courts reported a rise.
The findings reveal 61% of all respondents noted an increase in the number of lay clients, saying they had difficulty accessing legal advice and representation, while 60% reported an increase in the number of lay clients requesting free advice and representation.
Bar chair Nicholas Lavender QC (pictured) said: ‘These changes pose a significant threat to effective access to justice for some of the most vulnerable members of society, as well as a threat to the viability of the publicly funded bar.’
He said the results will help guide the bar’s policy and provide some ‘strong messages’ to government in the run-up to the general election.
Lavender said it may be too early to understand the full impact of the changes, but suggested simplified court processes and increased advertising about remaining legal aid services could alleviate the situation.
Lavender also suggested there should be a ‘comprehensive post-implementation’ review of LASPO and an assessment of the effects of the combination of changes that are occurring in civil and family justice.
The final report will be published in September.