The Need for Public Access
Government cuts in legal aid have increased exponentially over the past several years, heavily stemming from the major modifications made within 2012’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), which made it substantially harder to acquire free access to a lawyer. Since the act’s introduction, less people have had access to free legal representation than at any time since the birth of legal aid in the 1940’s. Indeed, in the past 5 years, spending on legal aid has been reduced by an astounding £1 billion, with the overall budget cut by 40%; larger than any other government department. Prior to budget cuts, the number of individuals receiving aid via the early legal advice scheme was 573,737. In 2018, this figure dropped to 140,091.
As a direct consequence, more and more people have been attempting to represent themselves in court, by and large via use of the public access scheme. Indeed, since 2011 the amount of individuals representing themselves, and subsequently seeking support to do so, has increased by an astonishing 520%. The commotion caused by these legal aid cuts persists today, and is more relevant than ever, with the severe lack of legal aid available now at the forefront of public discussion.
With such limited access to legal aid, it is therefore becoming increasingly more worth looking into the public access scheme, to find out how a public access barrister may be able to help you do as much of your legal work yourself as possible.
What is the Public/Direct Access Scheme, & What Can a Barrister Do For You?
The public access scheme (also known as the direct access scheme), essentially cuts out the middle man, the solicitor, meaning that you liaise with your barrister directly, and effectively take on the role of solicitor yourself. The barrister’s role remains almost identical to if they were approached by a solicitor (as would be the usual way). Public access barristers can therefore provide you with legal advice, representation and drafting, represent you in court, tribunals and mediations, negotiate for you, and attend hearings on your behalf where necessary. Usually, your solicitor would instruct a barrister to give detailed legal advice on your case and represent you in court. Through the public access scheme you would instead instruct a direct access scheme barrister yourself.
The Public Access Scheme is available for all types of work that barristers complete except for work funded by legal aid. If you are eligible for legal aid, a barrister will advise you to see a solicitor. If you are not sure whether you can receive legal aid, you should contact a solicitor who undertakes legal aid work.
What are the Benefits and Restrictions of Using a Public Access barrister?
As the barrister’s role remains unchanged when practising within a public access scheme, it is therefore the lack of solicitor that poses both the biggest benefit and primary drawback of utilising a direct access scheme barrister. The main benefit of utilising the scheme is undoubtedly economical; by only paying for a barrister, rather than a barrister and solicitor both, you will save yourself a substantial amount in legal fees, making access to the bar substantially more feasible, and allowing you to receive expert legal help at a much reduced rate.
However, there are differences between the work barristers and solicitors practice, with both offering differing services. This consequently means that you will be lacking those of the solicitor, some of which are crucial, and illegal for a barrister to perform. Barristers specialise in providing legal advice, advocacy and the drafting of documents, and there are certain situations where Barristers are limited to what they can do. In these cases you may be able to carry out said duties yourself, or you may have to employ a solicitor for a limited period of time. With this being said, for many cases a public access barrister’s advice, representation and drafting will be satisfactory. Deciding whether a public access scheme is for you therefore rests on your ability to carry out the tasks usually completed by a solicitor.
It is well worth noting that due to the expense of solicitors, and so as not to defeat the economical object of the Public Access Scheme, litigants can also use PALS; the Public Access Legal Support service, a paralegal resource tailored to helping barristers and clients working under the Public Access Scheme. If you are strongly considering using a direct access scheme barrister, this resource may be particularly useful.
Restrictions in Family Law
The rising number of litigants representing themselves has been particularly noticeable in the family courts, with the 2012 act severely shrinking legal aid for family cases. The proportion of parties with legal representation in family law cases with one hearing or more has consequently dropped from 60% (2010) to 33% (2017).
Whilst utilising the public access scheme for family matters can be economically beneficial, it is not always advisory due to these cases’ highly sensitive nature. This particularly rings true within domestic violence and child custody cases, where concerns exist on the impact of witnesses having to engage with those who have harmed them, and where emotions are likely to run high. As these factors could potentially prevent the litigator from being able to present their case accurately, the Bar Standards Board therefore advise to only use the public access scheme in simpler cases. If you feel you are able to present yourself effectively regarding a family matter however, you can present evidence of this to your public access barrister. They will take this into strong consideration, before deciding whether or not to take your case. As per Section D2 of The Bar Standards handbook, if it is ever in the ‘best interests of the public access client or in the interests of justice’ to use a solicitor, this must be made clear to the client immediately, and any necessary withdrawal from the case made by the barrister. This situation can therefore occur in family cases (although not always).
Using a Public Access Barrister at St. Pauls
Not all barristers accept public access work. If you are unsure whether your case would be suitable for the public access scheme (e.g. if your case if familial-based), you should seek a professional opinion. For more information on this matter, please contact us online, or call our Leeds and London offices at 0113 2455866 and 0207 1270565 respectively. We will try out best to help source you a suitable barrister. A full list of our barristers who specialise in family law is also available on our site.
As personal circumstance dictates whether public access is suitable for you, upon contact our barristers will assess your situation, and advise their verdict. This includes assessing your ability to carry out the tasks usually completed by a solicitor. In some cases, the public access scheme will be suitable for a certain amount of time, but not for the duration of your case, where at a given point a solicitor will have to step in. If this is the case for you, our barristers will advise you of this time frame.
For more information concerning both instructing a direct access scheme barrister and the public access scheme in general, please see The Bar Council’s advice on the matter. If you are seriously considering the public access scheme, we would also recommend reading The Bar Council’s official guides to both the public access scheme and representing yourself in court.