The Lord Chancellor has astutely turned the tables on the public debate over legal aid

‘Can I make a suggestion?’ came the voice from the back of DLA Piper’s conference room. ‘Can we take this report and bury it so deep that the government never finds it?’

The anonymous solicitor was, of course, making reference to a Law Society report that detailed the amount of pro bono work undertaken by the solicitor profession over the previous 12 months.

The fear of many in the room on that sunny November morning was how the report could be used to demand more of the profession. After all, if some 42 per cent of solicitors had undertaken an estimated £601m in pro bono work, then was there really a need for the taxpayer to fund the legal claims of others?

To anyone with even half a brain – and not to suggest the former justice secretary was lacking in that particular department – the answer is emphatically ‘yes’. As I wrote last year, the headline figures represented a mixed bag of corporate work that is hardly comparable with that carried out by the average, overworked and underpaid, legal aid practitioner.

Nevertheless, the prophecy foretold by that pessimistic practitioner has unfortunately come true afterMichael Gove used his first public speech as Lord Chancellor to press for the most successful members of the solicitor profession to do more to protect access to justice.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy of a Lord Chancellor who criticised the ‘dysfunctional’ courts and lawyers for failing the poor, Gove, like any good politician, chose to pick figures from the Law Society report that suited his argument best. Instead of focusing on the headline figures, he highlighted how only 16 per cent of the ‘very successful’ solicitors in ‘commerce and industry’ were providing pro bono services.

Thus Gove attempted to turn the tables on the public debate over legal aid. The reason you can’t have a lawyer in court to represent you is because they are all too busy making money in-house and in big law firms seems to be subtle gist of his argument.

Not to disparage any of the great work undertaken free of charge by City law firms, but the Ivory Towers of the City elite are not in a position to provide legal advice for the most vulnerable in society. And for that matter, neither are ABS-licensed universities, which seem set to become all the rage. Yes, both can help, but neither are real substitutes for a publicly funded legal aid system.

In response to Gove’s speech, Kingsley Napley partner Angus McBride said: ‘Asking City law firms to do pro bono work in areas in which they do not practise is not the solution. Investment will be key to any modernisation programme and efficiencies that Gove hopes to achieve.’

McBride is not alone. Many lawyers – solicitors, barristers, and legal execs alike – have delivered a deluge of press statements and tweets to argue that pro bono cannot plug the gap in legal aid.

Yet, the Lord Chancellor is effectively asking for the public to – and to paraphrase Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroine, Blanche DuBois – always depend on the kindness of lawyers.

It is of course right to acknowledge that Gove is not the Dementor Grayling was. His willingness even to appear outside of parliament is already causing some lawyers – and those of us in the legal press – to wonder if the earth tilted on its axis overnight.

His calls for urgent reform to a ‘creaking, outdated’ justice system are to be welcomed, but doing so by potentially closing more courts should give the profession and public pause for thought.

Gove’s tone may indeed be in marked contrast to that of his predecessor, but that does not mean he will be any less of a threat to the profession and access to justice.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 23 June 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission

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