Suggestions from the lord chancellor that the ‘richest’ in the legal system should plug the gap in provision created by cuts to legal aid have met with a cool reception among City lawyers.
Michael Gove (pictured) told the House of Commons last week that the government is going to ask the ‘very richest in the justice system to do a little bit more’ to fund the justice system.
‘One thing that struck me is that there are people in senior solicitors’ firms and in our best chambers who are not doing enough, given how well they have done out of the legal system, to support the very poores – they need to do more,’ he said.
The Gazette understands that Gove is considering both mandatory pro bono work and a financial levy on City lawyers. ‘All options are open’, a close source said.
But City lawyers pointed out that many firms already undertake much pro bono work and that few City lawyers have the skills to replace publicly funded legal aid.
Nicolas Patrick, a partner at global firm DLA Piper, said he agreed with the idea that City firms should be encouraged to do more pro bono work, which he said was lacking at some firms – but it was ‘unfortunate’ that Gove conflated this point with legal aid cuts. ‘No amount of pro bono work will fill the massive gap left behind by legal aid,’ he said.
Stephen Brown, a barrister at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square and trustee at LawWorks, who was until recently a partner at international firm Jones Day, said it might be possible for the government either to encourage more pro bono work, or make it compulsory, as in the US state of New Jersey, but this would not fit the culture of the UK.
‘The solution is having a properly funded legal system,’ he said.
Lawyers also hit back at any suggestion that City firms should financially contribute to plug the legal aid gap. David Hobart, chief executive of the City of London Law Society, said that any financial levy amounted to a ‘tax in all but name’.
Brown said it would be ‘just as insane as having doctors funding the National Health Service or train drivers financing the train service. The fact is everyone benefits from access to the justice system. It is not only in the interest of law firms, so I don’t see why lawyers who already pay tax should fund it.
‘The problem is in our society successful people are seen as a target and are being asked to make a contribution to something that is for the general good of society,’ he added.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen welcomed Gove’s ambition to improve the effectiveness of the courts. However, he pointed out that the legal profession is already committed to pro bono, with nearly half of solicitors in private practice averaging more than 50 hours per year.