The Ministry of Justice has axed a grant scheme that helped fund the training of the next generation of legal aid solicitors because there are ‘too many lawyers’ conducting legal aid work.
Legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly said the government would save £2.6m a year by scrapping the scheme, which provided training grants to legal aid firms.
Solicitors said the decision was a ‘real blow’ to young lawyers committed to legal aid.
Since the scheme began in 2002, more than 750 trainees have benefited from grants of over £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 trainee’s salary for the two years of their training contract.
The MoJ said those whose training is already being funded will be unaffected.
A spokesman said that when the scheme was introduced, financial inducements were needed to attract more young lawyers into the legal aid market.
He said there are now ‘too many lawyers chasing too little work’, and with greater pressure to save public money, the financial inducements no longer make economic sense.
‘The 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,’ he said.
The spokesman said many firms offer training contracts without being funded by a grant, and there are alternative ways into practice, for example through the paralegal route.
Laura Janes, chair of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers Association, said the move was a ‘real blow’ for young lawyers committed to legal aid.
‘The 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,’ she said.
Janes added that the withdrawal of the scheme sends a clear message that the government is not committed to quality or social mobility within the legal aid sector.
‘This development will undermine the quality of advice and representation available to those who cannot afford to pay for it, and will mean that legal aid lawyers become less and less representative of those who they work for,’ she said.
Law Society council member Christina Blacklaws said: ‘It is increasingly difficult to tempt good candidates into legal aid work, and even more difficult for legal aid practices to fund training contracts.
‘The grant scheme was one of the few tangible ways the LSC supported firms, enabling them to develop the next generation of legal aid lawyers.’
Blacklaws said the ‘short-sighted’ cut will leave many legal aid providers with no means of offering training contracts, while the LSC’s funding structure meant firms would have to increasingly use paralegals.
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said the scheme was ‘one of the most successful things the LCS did’.
‘It wasn’t a lot of their budget, but it was a huge incentive for firms to offer training contracts,’ she said.