‘Running on empty’ – Garden Court Chambers contributes to Bar Council Report on Civil Legal Aid

Friday 15 January 2021

The Bar Council has today released their Civil Legal Aid Research Report which reveals the severity of problems in the civil legal aid system and its implications for access to justice.

The report is based on a series of interviews with barristers and clerks, including many at Garden Court Chambers.

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The Bar Council is urging the Government to heed the findings of this report and seek to meet the Bar’s commitment to access to justice  and make proper and adequate investment in, and respect for, the justice system ,as a vital public service. The Report once again calls for a reversal of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Key report findings:

  • There is a serious problem with inequality of arms when it comes to bereaved families being represented at inquests. A bereaved family is likely to be represented by one junior barrister who, despite best efforts, has not had the time or resource to fully familiarise themselves with the background, get to know the family, investigate the case, and is in court facing a number of more senior practitioners representing state agencies.
  • The widespread closures of advice centres and high street solicitors, and increased pressure on those that remain, have seriously impacted the Bar. 
  • Practitioners are having to compensate for the reduction in fee income by taking more cases and working longer hours, leading to a stressful and last-minute working culture. 
  • Processes at the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) feel obtuse and complicated. There is a widespread perception of a “culture of refusal” at the LAA. 
  • Unsustainability for barristers coming in at the junior end, and problems with retention and career development, particularly from those without independent financial means..

Barristers and clerks at Garden Court Chambers contributed extensively to the report. 

Emma Manning, Senior Civil Practice Manager at Garden Court Chambers said:

“During my career I think the main thing that has happened is that barristers and solicitors are working harder for less money. For barristers, cuts to funding have come in and reduced the hourly rates or taken funding away completely. For solicitors there are more hoops to jump through just to secure funding in the first place. The means test has meant that you need to be virtually destitute to qualify.”

Stephanie Harrison QC, Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers emphasised a real danger that efforts to make a career at the Bar more accessible to those from  disadvantaged backgrounds will go into reverse: 

“It’s the legally aided Bar, and solicitors, that have made all the major advances in terms of diversity; representation of women, and black people and other minorities. If you took away the legal aid Bar, the Bar and a lot of solicitors’ firms would look pretty much the same as they did 30 years ago and even 50 years ago.” 

Sarah Hemingway, a Garden Court barrister who undertakes a significant amount of inquest and claims against the police work, was adamant that grieving families cannot and should not be expected to essentially represent themselves at an inquest:

“Grieving families are not in any state to start reading through documentation and questioning witnesses. And just understanding the procedure, this is something that is so alien to them. Those families cannot possibly go through that whole process without proper funding. For families not to have funding is just atrocious. And not to, I think is a society where we’re not doing our duty towards them at all.”

Leading public law and immigration silk Sonali Naik QC of Garden Court Chambers noticed the stress levels among juniors rising in recent years due to the sustained levels of pressure and high workload:

“I think, when I look at the juniors now, particularly juniors who are going to tribunal every day, it’s totally unsustainable, they are totally burnt out. Even after a couple of years, let alone five or 10 years...literally, people don’t stop. People are working in a frenzied way and that is unsustainable”

Garden Court Chambers welcomes this report and we would like to thank the Bar Council and all those who contributed, for highlighting the serious consequences of chronic underfunding of the civil legal aid system for both those who rely upon it to protect their rights and those working within it seeking to secure accountability for any breach of those rights.

The full report can be read here. This was reported in the Financial Times

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