UK: "It's Legal Aid, Jim, But Not As We Know It."

Last Updated: 6 January 2011
Article by Adam Makepeace

A month ago, the government announced plans to wipe £350m off the legal aid budget and if carried through, over 500,000 of the most vulnerable members of our society will no longer have access to justice. That's 25% of those currently able to do so, denied the democratic right first outlined in Magna Carta eight hundred years ago: 'we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right'.

By any measure this will be an extraordinary challenge to a legal aid system that has successfully protected the rights of tens of millions of people over the past 60 years. Yet, as against the projected impact of the increases in university fees, the response of the legal profession so far has been somewhat muted. This may prove short sighted. There is a growing consensus that the reductions in legal aid will force non legal aid practices to take on a much increased pro-bono workload.1 The point has also been made that effective legal aid was the price for the continuing independence of the legal (unlike the medical) profession when the post – war welfare reforms were implemented.

Legal Aid is not currently considered a vote winner but a recent report found that 84% of the population are in favour (in fact, in favour of extending legal aid to all of those on less than the average national income).2 Although such a suggestion sounds unrealistic today, it should be borne in mind that when the system was introduced 80% of the population qualified for assistance. That suggests that public opinion will force the provision of access to justice of some sort for those unable to meet from their own pocket the costs of representation, once the impact of the proposed changes has been felt. One of our partners has experience of working in France, where every partnership was allocated cases every year in which they are obliged to offer their services to the impecunious at 'legal aid rates'; it is not impossible to imagine a similar burden being placed upon our profession as a whole.

Many aspects of the current proposals certainly necessitate serious challenge through the consultation process. For example, the removal of ancillary relief in divorce proceedings used by tens of thousands of women, for the sake of saving £19m is clearly without merit. It may have provided a convenient sound bite but the truth is that this is a sum that could have been covered by improved efficiencies in the administration of legal aid. Instead it is apparently preferable to compel these clients to the improbable panacea of three hours of mediation to resolve their matrimonial affairs.

Likewise the entire removal of welfare benefits from scope will undoubtedly bring hardship to many individuals for example who would otherwise have been able to pursue legitimate cases for vital Disability Living Allowance. We have acted for a number involving children with severe disabilities who would now be denied the legal aid support required to pursue their rightful and successful claims. Similarly in the area of immigration, the removal of all cases that do not involve a detention challenge or an asylum aspect because the individuals concerned have 'usually made a free and personal choice to come and remain the United Kingdom' demonstrates a lack of understanding of the complex issues involved and the real dangers of denying such individuals the necessary legal protection.

But if the approach to reform in the Green Paper is based on the Minister's perception of a need to 'discourage a culture of litigation', it is no wonder that the impact of such 'green' ideas has so far been ill-considered. Some of the proposals go way beyond this somewhat sneering slash and burn approach to signal a revolution in the way legal aid services as a whole might be accessed in the future.3 However, the Law Society's recent successful judicial review of the Legal Service Commissions' (LSC) family law bid tender process (which heralded an overnight reduction from approximately 2,400 to 1,200 family law aid legal firms) shows that this needs to be managed without the risk of decimating the provision of legal aid.

To many this would seem to offer those firms that remain a financial bonanza but it could turn out to be a financial nightmare. Obtaining the working capital to fund the recruitment of new staff is not a given in an environment where bank funding is still scarce. Even my firm, Britain's biggest provider of legal aid services, is not immune to these challenges. We have long accepted the need to pursue greater efficiency and value for money in the delivery of legal aid services. Our implementation of the Carter Model using solicitors and paralegals enables us to provide services to over 20,000 clients a year. However, our ability to expand our services in this environment is still severely constrained. And for many smaller firms faced with the proposal of an immediate 10% cut in civil legal aid fees and a future of competitive tendering, it is clear that large numbers of them will sadly be driven out of business.

For those of us who can survive, what options are available to safeguard our ability to provide legal aid services? My firm is examining two options: obtaining our own sources of alternative funding and the forthcoming alternative business structures. Both offer opportunities for protecting the supply of legal aid services but have different implications.

Let's return to the government's proposal of taking ancillary relief out of scope. There are private lenders who would be prepared to finance the legal fees involved. These lenders are certainly more experienced than the state at taking an informed view as to the security of their loan vis a vis the client's assets. And in return for an improved and more secure payment facility, saving them time and money, the law firms involved might well be prepared to reduce their fees or even work for fixed tariffs.

The net result would be the continuation of the supply of work for these clients without an increase in the costs to them. Of course, funding of this nature won't remove all clients from the need for publicly funded legal aid support: cases with assets below a certain level won't provide an adequate revenue model for the private lenders and private law cases involving children in contact and residence disputes are of particular concern, but it could support a large number of clients who otherwise will now be left without legal representation.

The Legal Services Act 2007 reformed the way in which legal services are regulated in England and Wales, allowing for the creation of alternative business structures (ABS) from October 2011. These will enable law firms to explore new ways of organising their businesses to be more cost-effective, permit different kinds of lawyers and non-lawyers to work together, and allow for external investment. Undoubtedly this will bring a revolution to the legal sector but does it offer potential for legal aid firms to adapt to the challenges ahead?

Even with a legal aid budget still in the billions, firms operating in this sector are not usually spoken of in the same profitable tones as our brethren in private law firms. The potential to deliver returns on investment through mergers in the legal aid sector is certainly not out of the question though. It will require investors who understand the nature of legal aid work and the need to maintain quality in its provision. Equally those legal aid firms that do take up such opportunities will have to experience some cultural changes.


1. See e.g. the article by Alex Aldridge, editor of Legal Week in The Guardian 19 November.

2. 'Social welfare law: what is fair?' Report produced by the Legal Action Group – see table 5 and the accompanying text

3. Consider the proposal for the development of the Community Legal Advice (CLA) helpline (Section 4.272):'The CLA Helpline will be established as the single gateway to civil legal aid services'. From the government's perspective, this is a neat way of controlling the total expenditure on legal aid services: create a filter that can decide how much face-to-face advice (i.e. at legal aid firms) is actually made available to those who might need it.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.