Open access to justice

Students with the potential to be incredible solicitors, barristers and judges are being blocked from entering the legal profession. That needs to change, writes Nick Thomas-Symonds MP

Open access to the legal profession for anyone with the ability, skill and competence to offer a quality service to the public should be a guiding principle for all who believe in the rule of law. Recent debate has centred on the proposed changes to the admissions process for those who seek to qualify as solicitors, and whether the existing system should be changed.

The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority has put the case for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination.  The current position is said to be inconsistent, with different routes into the profession that do not assess competence in the same way; the lack of transparency in course results is cited (specifically, the variation in pass rates for the legal practice course and graduate diploma in law); the cost bars able people from applying; and there is the fact that most other jurisdictions insist on an independent assessment to enter the profession.  The idea is that a clear, unified, universal examination testing legal knowledge and skills will provide confidence for the public at large, law firms, education providers and aspirant solicitors themselves. Such an idea is attractive in principle, but it is important that the SRA continues to move forward in a considered, consultative way and that the nature of the SQE proves durable and achieves its objectives. With implementation still a few years away, there is time for a strategic transition.

Such a change also brings into sharp focus two other fundamental issues: issues that must be tackled if the legal profession is to become more diverse in the years ahead. How do we overcome the perception that too many able applicants, men and women from a variety of different backgrounds, feel that the legal profession just is not for them? The Law Society, in their 2015 Diversity Charter Biennial Report, found that 27 per cent of solicitors had attended a UK independent/fee-paying school. Similarly, the Sutton Trust in their annual 2016 report, detailing the educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite, revealed that 74 per cent of high court and appeals court judges attended fee-paying schools. In 2004, this figure was 75 per cent. This reveals the staggering disparity of those who attend a fee paying school and those from a state school background especially considering that the proportion of fee paying schools in England is only 9.5 per cent.

Second, and it is the elephant in the room in all these discussions on reform of the regulation of the legal profession, we have to deal with the issue of the cuts to legal aid.  It was the Labour government of my first biographical subject, Clement Attlee, that passed the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, and legal aid came to be regarded as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the welfare state.  Yet, rather than having a justice system in which anyone can enforce their rights regardless of wealth, we now have a system that the lord chief justice, John Thomas, comments is ‘unaffordable to most.’ The Law Society conducted a survey which revealed that in the South West, the West Midlands and Wales counties there is one provider for legal aid for housing. In addition, in the past five years there has been a decrease of legal aid providers in relation to pieces of work that are completed. The government have continued to slash the legal aid budget: how can we expect the public to have wide confidence in the quality and accessibility of a profession that is simply out of their reach when they need legal advice?

So, while I welcome a debate on regulation and access, we must not lose sight of the fundamentals. For that we need a change of government: to one willing to increase the legal aid budget, allowing more people to access it and to encourage more people to enter law from more diverse backgrounds including state schools. There are so many students who have the potential to be incredible solicitors, barristers and judges. Barriers need to be broken down by determined ministers.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds MP is member of parliament for Torfaen. He tweets @NickTorfaenMP

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Comments: 2...

  1. On October 3, 2017 at 7:52 am Verity responded with... #

    When their work is done well the work of Accountants, Solicitors, Estate Agents, insurance and the current work of much of the existing banks bring standards to what could otherwise be chaotic market place. But when it comes to prioritising, my preference for additional allocate of our current levels of resources would go to productive investment for growth. I think some Economists have called the intermediary sectors of the economy ‘rent collectors’ in that they (usually more marginally) are not productive sectors. Most sectors add some value to the economy, but we do need to grow the economy through productive investment via a National Investment Bank and not get distracted in the early days of a McDonnell Chancellorship by services for which the tax take has to expand when we can avoid giving it an early priority. After all we would not want the economics of the like of Chris Leslie, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling to accuse us of not growing the economy for productive growth and therefore earning those services that we will be needing to secure at later stages of progress would we. But when it comes to those later priorities there will be many demands and choices will have to be made at that time, not now.

  2. On October 7, 2017 at 9:02 am Josephine Bacon responded with... #

    The whole justice system in the UK is broken, from our disgusting, Victorian prisons to the civil courts that are actually falling down through neglect and lack of maintenance. This government and previous Tory governments think that by cutting all aspects of the free legal service, from legal aid to payment for court officials and interpreters, they are saving money. They are actually storing up terrible consequences for the future. They are allowing criminals to go free while punishing the innocent. The Law Society Gazette is full of examples of all this. Cutting down on the legal system is a false economy.

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