UK legal sector needs ‘step-change’ to improve accessibility

A “step-change” is needed in the legal profession to boost diversity, widen access to services and make entry to a career in law easier for disadvantaged groups, said the sector’s regulator. 

In a hard-hitting report marking its ten year anniversary, the Legal Services Board said minority communities struggled to secure vital legal services and found it difficult to break into a career in law because of the profession’s culture.

The LSB said that while the legal sector made a strong contribution to economic growth in the UK — pumping up to £60bn into the country’s economy in 2018 according to the most recent figures from professional body the Law Society — it remained dogged by issues around fairness and transparency.

The report said the sector was “failing to meet the needs of society” owing to a lack of access to affordable legal services, in large part because of swingeing government cuts to legal aid — state help to pay for lawyers’ services — in the last decade. These disproportionately affected minority groups, say charities.

This “unfairness for consumers” was mirrored by “unfairness present in the profession itself owing to a persistent lack of diversity in hiring, retention and career progression, said the LSB.

A preference for “elite” educational institutions and working practices and cultures that exclude outsiders was a significant factor preventing those from disadvantaged backgrounds entering the profession, said the report’s authors. The result, they added, is that the law remains a sector sorely lacking in diversity.

The LSB also highlighted a persistent gender pay gap, which is currently 20 per cent across the profession, and lack of racial diversity, particularly at senior levels.

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, just over a fifth of lawyers in England and Wales identify as Bame — a greater proportion than the 14.4 per cent in the UK working age population last year, according to the Bar Standards Board, which regulates barristers. But last year “magic circle” law firm Clifford Chance revealed just 7.5 per cent of its London partners identified as Bame; the proportion was 10 per cent at rival Allen & Overy’s London partnership.

In September, black barrister Alexandra Wilson made headlines when she revealed she had been mistaken for a defendant three times in a single day when attending court.

According to the LSB and the Bar Standards Board, a large proportion of lawyers — over 37 per cent — also attended fee-paying schools. 

The LSB said the sector should focus on providing fairer outcomes for consumers by boosting access to services and jobs, building public confidence and providing better services through innovation. 

The damning assessment comes as the UK’s competition regulator prepares to publish its own progress report on the sector, following a 2016 study. The watchdog will focus on consumer choice and value for money.

Helen Phillips, LSB chair, said there was “an opportunity for the sector to reinvent itself and embrace a culture that puts the needs of consumers at its heart.”

“Success will also mean a sector that better reflects the communities it serves,” she added. “An inclusive culture will encourage people of all backgrounds to enter the law and support them to pursue rewarding legal careers.”


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