People living in areas without a major city are particularly badly hit by “vanishing” availability of civil legal aid across housing, welfare, education, community care and immigration, the Law Society has claimed.
Chancery Lane said this followed government cuts and stagnant rates of pay for providers.
The South West, North East and North West were “bereft in almost all legal and local authority areas”, it suggested, adding that Wales also had very sparse coverage.
Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said. “A fair society has a legal system where rich and poor are equally able to access justice.
“For rights to be real, everyone who is entitled to state-funded legal advice to uphold their rights should be able to get that advice when they need it.”
She added: “Our analysis shows people on lower incomes who face terrifying legal issues from domestic abuse to homelessness or who need to challenge inadequate care or education from their local authority increasingly can’t get the expert legal advice to which they are entitled.”
The Law Society said “catastrophically low” rates of pay were forcing legal professionals across the country to withdraw from providing legal aid as the work was not economically viable for small businesses like solicitor firms.
I. Stephanie Boyce noted that in the family courts there had been a “worrying” rise in the number of litigants in person. “Many cases that could be dealt with effectively through the early intervention of a lawyer escalate unnecessarily, causing untold misery to those involved and an additional burden on already threadbare courts.”
She added that with evictions on the rise following the pandemic, more people were likely to need urgent legal aid, “but 23 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes struggling to access legal advice when they are at their most vulnerable.
“Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing, family, welfare, care or immigration problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently – if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county this can be an insurmountable barrier.”
The Law Society called on the Government to commit in the upcoming spending review to fund the legal aid system properly.
Click to view the Law Society’s interactive legal aid desert maps for housing, welfare, education, community care and immigration, showing providers by local authority area.