It’s taken a short while for the recently installed justice secretary to get to grips with the challenges he will face in office, but oh, how he has come out fighting.
Laying down the law like only a Lord Chancellor can, Michael Gove has drawn a line in the sand that he now intends to set in concrete and use as a firm foundation to demolish whatever may be within arm’s reach, starting with more court closures, courtroom inefficiency, and ‘snowdrifts of paper’. But this is only the start.
Although, for now, we are assured that there are no plans to cut legal aid further, this cannot be ruled out. So how does Gove propose the gaps already created by cuts should be filled? By lawyers working for free, of course.
Before you dismiss that as an idle threat, be warned that plans for a ‘lawyers levy’ have already been drafted. Giving his first public speech as Lord Chancellor at the Legatum Institute last week, Gove said: ‘If we are to have effective access to justice then we need to ensure that those who have done well out of our justice system contribute more’.
The problem is that many of those who have done well have taken the money and run. Those who have not will be cashing in their Cayman accounts and jumping ship before any such regulation can be enacted. And who can blame them?
Pro bono work has always been an integral part of the legal profession. In recent years it has been part of legal training, with law schools working with local communities and local firms to provide a much needed service and valuable experience for aspiring lawyers.
For many, however, once education and training is over, the hours we are able to commit to pro bono work drops as workplace demands on time and attention take priority. That is not the case for all, of course. Pro bono work has always been something lawyers chose to do, not were obliged to do. This has worked out well and previous calculations have estimated just how many millions of pounds worth of free advice is dispensed across the country.
But why are lawyers being singled out again, Mr Gove? The food shortages in many communities have been well publicised, but restaurants and supermarkets aren’t obliged to dispense free produce from their back doors, even though some may choose to.
Then there are the levies already in place for us all. HMRC have made a well-publicised point of targeting lawyers for non-compliance of taxes, yet we have all seen front page stories about large corporations not paying their dues.
Last month, Taylor Swift spoke out on behalf of small labels and independent artists against Apple not paying rights owners during a three-month trial of its Apple Music service, querying why she and others should effectively work for free. Apple made a U-turn and acknowledged its mistake. If, like Taylor, law firm heavyweights are prepared to speak out against Gove now, the whole profession could benefit.
This article first appeared in the Solicitors Journal on 26 June 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/9309089@N05/8114084607″>Taylor Swift GMA</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>