The scrapping of training grants for legal aid lawyers has come like a bolt out of the blue for many in the legal profession, especially those who have grown used to the largesse of the Legal Services Commission.
The scheme, which was launched in 2002, provided awards to a maximum of £20,000 to legal aid firms. The funds could be used to pay the whole of the tuition fees of the Professional Skills Course, as well as a significant contribution to Legal Practice Course fees. Additionally, the salaries of trainee Solicitors were paid for the two years of their training contracts.
Of course, the immediate motivation of the Ministry of Justice is to save funds, against the backdrop of generally savage cuts across government departments. Jonathan Djanogly, the Legal Aid Minister, has stated that £2.6 million a year would be saved by what he said was a temporary suspension of the scheme.
Those directly affected by the cuts are, predictably, none too happy. In particular, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) has expressed its frustration: ‘YLAL is bitterly disappointed to learn that the LSC will no longer be providing sponsored training contracts. The withdrawal of these grants sends a very clear message that the LSC is not committed to quality or social mobility within the legal aid sector.
Obviously, such a move will be disruptive to the plans of many individuals and will certainly cause real pain for those training firms that have depended on the yearly award to plump out their training schemes. But it is worth taking a step back to reflect on exactly what purpose the grants were being put to.
Ostensibly the scheme was introduced because too few young lawyers were coming into the legal aid market. By gilding the training route up to becoming a qualified Solicitor, it was hoped that there would be an incentive for those taking up the grants to move into legal aid firms. And the LSC has stated that over 750 legal aid Solicitors benefited from a training contract grant.
But, as a spokesman for the Legal Aid Minister has said, there are now ‘too many lawyers chasing too little work’. As with many well-intentioned schemes of this sort, the money has driven the supply beyond the demand, to the benefit of neither the trainee Solicitor, those needing legal aid provision nor indeed the taxpayer.
There is another route into practices that can be less onerous on the taxpayer and that produces more rounded and vocationally qualified Solicitors – paralegal work. Paralegals actually make up the largest segment of the legal fee-earning sector, numbering some 150,000. The term paralegal has evolved to recognise the professionalism and importance of the work of those supporting Solicitors in a fee-earning capacity.
They now perform a critical support role for Solicitors and Barristers, with the work they undertake being very similar in scope and intensity to that of their employing Solicitor. So it's no surprise that the years spent as a paralegal are being looked on increasingly as the best sort of training ground for moving into becoming a practising Solicitor.
The professionalisation of the paralegal sector is still an ongoing work, but the National Association of Licensed Paralegals is working hard to formalise the career and qualifications path for those working in this sector. They have introduced a licensing scheme and are defining a set of courses that paralegals can take to recognise their areas of expertise
By encouraging young professionals, not just those with law degrees, to take the paralegal route, expensive and vocationally irrelevant training can be omitted and the experiences of those coming into the profession will be less limited.
So, maybe the withdrawal of the LSC training grants, which had become an expensive and narrowly focussed route to supplying Solicitors, will bring about a much needed broadening and deepening of the roads into the legal profession.