Sundeep Bhatia: legal aid changes could set back ethnic minority solicitors for a generation

As former Chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers Sundeep Bhatia leaves its committee, he highlights the grave new threat to equality in the profession.

Sundeep Bhatia, solicitor & former Chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers

Sundeep Bhatia  fears BAME law firms are under threat. Photo: Sundeep Bhatia

Law firms with ethnic minority owners provide a valuable service to local communities, and help to cultivate diversity within the legal profession. For me it was a small Asian firm, Gupta and Partners in Wealdstone, Harrow, which gave me my big break when I started out as a solicitor.

I ran my own criminal defence firm from 1999 to 2006, and in turn gave opportunities to the next generation of BAME criminal defence lawyers. Most of those who applied were from BAME backgrounds; Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and Afro-Caribbean solicitors all worked at my firm. This is one of the reasons why I am passionate about the continued existence of such firms, but under the legal aid reforms it is likely some will now wither on the vine. Continue reading

Advertisements

Falling applications and female success – the state of law at UK universities in three key charts

The Law Society released its Annual Statistics Report last week, which revealed the first fall in practising solicitors in 20 years. The report itself is available to buy from the Law Society, the professional body representing solicitors, and it’s well worth a read if you’re interested in the changing demographics of the legal profession.

But that wasn’t the only story in the 60-page document – it also included some interesting tables on the state of law at British universities, drawing on data from UCAS and the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Here they are in three key charts (mine, via Datawrapper):

1. Fall in British students applying to study law, but a rise in foreign applications

Chart - Law applications - 10% drop in British students applying for law at university - while foreign applications are on the rise

There were 24,265 British applicants for first-degree law courses in England and Wales in 2012 – a fall of 9.2 per cent on the previous year.  Continue reading

Students launch group to resist legal aid cuts

Students have founded a new organisation to defend legal aid in the UK

Protesters rally against legal aid cuts during lawyers' strike yesterday, London

Protesters rally against legal aid cuts during lawyers’ strike yesterday, London


Students For Legal Aid announced its arrival via Twitter today, stating that ‘students are planning the next action’ after a historic walkout by lawyers on Monday.

The group is a ‘new network of students committed to fighting for the protection of legal aid’, and on Twitter it has already notched up nearly 400 followers.

It says it will hold talks by lawyers, supporters and those affected by cuts across the country – ‘followed swiftly by further action, of course’.

Bold and radical rhetoric is striking in its Tweets so far:

https://twitter.com/Stdnts4LegalAid/status/420631945337257984

https://twitter.com/Stdnts4LegalAid/status/420650266384273408

Continue reading

Legal Aid Strike: Tweets of the Day

Lawyers didn’t turn up for work today in a mass protest against legal aid cuts. TOM BELGER picks out the brightest, boldest and best of the Twittersphere

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

WHY ARE LAWYERS ANGRY?

Continue reading

This week in legal aid:

 

Engraving of a Victorian courtroom scene © Sheffield Libraries, Archives and Information (Licensed under Creative Commons)

Engraving of a Victorian courtroom scene © Sheffield Libraries, Archives and Information (Licensed under Creative Commons)

A barrister has vowed that the Bar will fight cuts to justice, in an unusual open letter to the Lord Chancellor that has been doing the rounds on Twitter this week.

A London Underground traffic update board was snapped on November 19 at Westminster Tube station with the following message:

FAO Lord Chancellor,

Your consultation paper is a sham.

Justice is in jeopardy.

The Bar will fight for her.

Not a penny more cuts.

Regards,

A Barrister

Meanwhile, in the first of two news stories featuring the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), top UK barrister and CBA Chairman has warned that legal aid cuts could lead to murderers and rapists walking free.

“Without wishing to alarm the public, the impact of cuts will mean more cases collapse with murderers, rapists and child-sex offenders walking free.”

In an interview with the Mirror on November 17, Nigel Lithman QC said that “top lawyers would refuse to take on long, serious cases as they would not be paid enough.”

According to the Mirror, he said hourly rates would dip below the minimum wage and commercial barristers would earn in an hour what criminal barristers earn in a ­fortnight.

“The ­criminal justice system is being turned into a ­wasteland.”

What do you think? What constitutes a fair salary for legal aid lawyers? Tweet us your views, take our poll and add your comments below.

Legal Aid Watch has also been keeping a close eye on movements within the Criminal Bar as barristers voted to protest this week:

Poster from the CBA (Credit: Criminal Bar Association)

Poster from the CBA (Credit: Criminal Bar Association)

According to Legal Voice UK, the vote took place at the CBA’s national delegates’ conference in London on November 17.  The government’s proposals for legal aid include a further 17.5% cut to defence barristers’ fees in criminal legal aid cases.

Mark George QC has been quoted as saying:

“I appreciate for some of you, this may sound radical. It is radical. We are in a radical situation. It’s time to fix the bayonets because we are not going to go down without a fight.”

However, CBA Chairman Nigel Lithman QC urged for “caution” as a number of barristers at the conference reportedly asked for a strike date.

William Hogarth, credit: Creative Commons

William Hogarth, credit: Creative Commons

Meanwhile, according to the Law Society Gazette, the Law Society Council has spoken out in defense of the legal aid restructuring.

On a more technological note, a personal injury firm based in Manchester has created a smartphone application that will help with cuts to fees.  The Law Society Gazette reports that Aequitas Legal will attempt to sell the application to other firms in the hope of saving clients money through instant communication.

Similarly, Clifford Chance announced on November 15 that it will take steps to fund free legal advice.  The global firm will give £73,000 to three legal advice centres to help them continue to support vulnerable communities in the face of public funding cuts.

Finally, the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a story on November 14 on the closure of Leeds Law Centre.  Cuts to legal aid have been blamed for what has been described as a “shock move”.

The Harehills and Chapeltown Law Centre shut their doors on November 7 after more than 30 years of legal aid services.

This week in legal aid

In his first press briefing since taking the office of Lord Chief Justice in October, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said he was “not persuaded” that legal aid cuts have so far affected access to justice. He voiced his concerns, however, that the judiciary might suffer from legal aid cuts in the future as talented individuals are discouraged from entering the profession. “The level of remuneration that has to be paid to those who are doing publicly funded work must be commensurate with an amount that will attract people into it,” he said.

These concerns were echoed in a letter from senior QCs to The Independent.

legal aid chris grayling

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling

The letter, signed by the leaders of the Bar Council’s six circuits in England and Wales, criticised Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s plans to cut legal aid fees for criminal cases, saying they will cause “irreparable harm” to the legal system because lawyers will exit the profession and “find something else to do”.

At the Bar’s annual conference on Saturday, Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, warned barristers against turning down new legal aid briefs as a form of protest against cuts. “The disruption caused to the courts may bring about the changes you desire, but equally it also carries with it the very serious risk that within government there will simply be a view that people should look elsewhere for the services we [barristers] provided” he said.

attorney general dominic grieve legal aid

Attorney General Dominic Grieve

On Monday, however, the Criminal Bar Association reported that barristers are refusing to act in 40 very high cost criminal cases in a protest over cuts to legal aid fees. Solicitors have also called for a special meeting of the Law Society, urging a vote of no-confidence in the leadership’s “appeasement and abject surrender” to government legal aid cuts.

Finally, a new Law Society report finds that a record number of newly qualified solicitors are undertaking pro bono work. Almost half of all assistant and associate solicitors are providing pro bono services in 2013, up 10% on the previous year.