During the summer, we wrote about a government claim that legal aid lawyers earn £200 an hour. We concluded that publicly funded social welfare cases don't routinely attract anything like such fees, but the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) provided us with two scenarios that it said could, in theory, back up the minister's claim.
First, the MoJ argued that if a set fee is around £200—as in a case concerning debt, which is £180—and it only takes an hour to complete, the lawyer is effectively getting £200 an hour. But it couldn't say whether lawyers are likely to spend an hour or less on a case in practice.
Sara Stephens, a lawyer at Anthony Gold Solicitors, has since provided us with figures from the Legal Aid Agency that do shed light on this. They show that last year only 5% of social welfare cases were sorted out within an hour.
Social welfare law covers legal problems with welfare benefits, housing, employment, community care and debt. Providing legal advice and assistance in such cases took 5.9 hours on average last year. On debt cases specifically, which was the area the MoJ cited, the average time to conclude the case was 12.7 hours.
So while it would in theory be possible for a legal aid lawyer to earn close to £200 for an hour's work on a debt case, this is hardly evidence for a claim hinting that "everybody" on legal aid gets a lawyer on such a rate.
The second issue the MoJ raised was that if a senior barrister is hired for a case that goes to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court, they can be paid up to £225 an hour.
We submitted a Freedom of Information request to try to find out how often that happens in social welfare cases.
The Legal Aid Agency told us that the rank of barrister claiming a legal aid fee isn't automatically recorded, so answering our question would require manually inspecting at least 116,000 documents and take 38,700 hours. Freedom of Information rules, reasonably enough, put a limit on how much work public authorities are required to put in on a request.
So we're no closer to an answer on that one, but it remains inherently unlikely that a large number of social welfare cases are getting so far up the legal system. Our conclusion that legal aid lawyers don't earn £200 per hour is unchanged.
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