Is my issue a legal problem?

Legal Justice Week runs from February 24th -28th, and at a time when the Ministry of Justice (MOD) and Legal Aid Agency are reviewing the merits test for criminal and civil publicly funded work, public education about the importance of access to justice has never been more relevant.

I recently attended a forum with Richard Miller, head of the justice team at the Law Society, along with representatives from the MOJ and Legal Aid Agency. The room was filled with experienced and impassioned legal aid lawyers from civil and criminal backgrounds. One theme that kept arising during the meeting was that in many cases, people simply don’t realise that the issue they are facing is a legal one that requires specialist legal advice.

Furthermore, the damaging impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act  (LASPO) on the public’s perception of access to public funding and therefore access to justice, shows a great deal of work needs to be done to educate the public that legal aid is still available and that the issue that they may have, even if they don’t believe it to be, is very likely to be a legal issue.

A survey jointly commissioned by and undertaken on behalf of the Law Society and the Legal Aid Agency revealed that of the legal needs of individuals in England and Wales, 64% of adults experienced a legal issue in the last four years. Of those, 55% received professional help, whereas an estimated 30%  had unmet legal need for a contentious legal issue, where they either did not receive any help or wanted more help to resolve the issue. Of those who received help, 85% were satisfied with the service they received from their professional adviser. Most significantly, people who received services from solicitors were ranked the most satisfied at 90%.

So, research shows that one of the biggest barriers people face in enforcing and defending their rights is actually recognising that their problem is in fact a legal problem. As Richard Miller rightly points out, many people turn to friends and family, community leaders, doctors, local MP’s, and other familiar sources for help with their problems, without ever thinking of seeking legal advice. His view, which I absolutely support, is that public legal education can help to ensure that more people recognise when their problem might be one that a lawyer can help them with and what it is that a lawyer can do for them. He believes that public legal education will deliver significant benefits to society with more people resolving their legal issues.

Some arms of the media have sought to place significant (and in my view unjustified) criticism on publicly funded lawyers. One newspaper in particular used to report annual stories regarding the “fat cat” legal aid lawyers. The reality is that these high earners may be a small proportion of QCs in very complex cases, when the ordinary publicly funded legal aid lawyer earns a modest salary in comparison to their peers.

I also work for a firm that promotes not pigeonholing problems. A client may present with one issue, but there may be a cluster of issues that follow. A solicitor’s role is not to simply tackle the issue that a client presents them with, it is to look at a client’s problem from a holistic perspective. In providing a sufficiently holistic service to clients, we can help them tackle all of the issues they face, not just the one that they themselves may have identified.

The time to put the issue of public education of legal problems back into the spotlight is during Justice Week. Above all else, we as lawyers should spread the word that a legal problem has legal solutions and that we can help.