I’ve just read on the BBC a summary of a Panorama programme due to be broadcast next Monday which examines the effect of the legal aid cuts upon those seeking contact with their children.
The summary says:
“As senior members of the judiciary warn these cuts have undermined the principle of equal access to the law, the man who made them tells Panorama the British legal aid gravy train had to be stopped.”
By “the man who made them” I presume that they mean our esteemed Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling.
This got me thinking: was there ever really a ‘legal aid gravy train’?
I did legal aid work for about twenty years. It certainly did not make me rich, but did it make other lawyers wealthy?
I can think of two examples of lawyers who did make a lot of money out of legal aid.
The first example is the barrister who got paid large sums for dealing with long or complex hearings. However, those were generally people at the top of the profession who were experts in their field. Should not the best people get paid more than others? It should also be remembered that the numbers were very small. There are only about 1400 QCs in total in this country – they don’t all earn vast sums, and many never did legal aid work anyway.
The other example is the firm of solicitors that received large payments from the legal aid fund. Over a year those payments could look very impressive, sometimes running into millions, and therefore making good headlines in the anti-legal aid media. However, such payments could only be achieved with very high caseloads, so the firms were having to work for their money. What is probably not understood by the general public is that legal aid firms cannot charge what they want for the work. The amount that they can charge is very strictly limited, and all of their bills are checked by either the court or the legal aid agency. The end result of this is that a firm will receive considerably less than they would if they did the same work privately. That, in turn, means that the firm must deal with even more cases to receive large payments. In short, the government was getting excellent value for money.
From my own experience, those two examples were rarities. The vast majority of legal aid lawyers did not make huge incomes from their work, and very often they made little or no profit from it, subsidising it with privately funded work. If there was a ‘gravy train’, most legal aid lawyers were still stuck at the station.
The term ‘gravy train’ in this context usually refers to the public money going into the pockets of lawyers, but it could also refer to the support given to members of the public. Could those in receipt of legal aid be said to have been on a gravy train?
It is true that sometimes legal aid was abused, with people starting or continuing proceedings that they would never have done if they had had to pay for representation themselves. However, in my experience of family law matters, such people were relatively few. Most people find court proceedings distressing, and want them to be as short as possible. In any event, the problem of those few who abused legal aid could surely have been addressed without abolishing legal aid entirely.
The whole idea of legal aid being a ‘gravy train’ is one that has been very successfully ingrained in the public consciousness by those who supported the cuts. This, of course, means that gaining public support to oppose the cuts is a thankless task. However, the ‘gravy train’ idea is largely a myth. The vast majority of legal aid lawyers were not fat cats, but rather were conscientious people dedicated to helping the less well off in society. It might seem unlikely that legal aid will ever be restored to what it was, but for the sake of those who still need legal help as much as ever, we must counter the myth at every opportunity.