Decades of legal aid cuts cause ‘advice deserts’

updated on 11 November 2022

Reading time: two minutes

Across England and Wales more than half a million people are unable to access legal aid in the housing and community care sectors, according to campaigners. Without access to legal help advice, many areas are left in a so-called ‘advice desert’.

A new report published by LexisNexis revealed that there’s “worrying lack of provision” for housing alone. This is a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which removed public funding for huge areas of law, including most social welfare and family cases, when it came into effect in 2013.

Since then, the legislation has been criticised for leaving hundreds of thousands of people without early legal advice, which could’ve prevented further issues escalating and helped avoid increased numbers of people unrepresented in court.

Figures released by the Legal Aid Agency, the body that administers civil legal aid, show that the number of cases where people were given initial advice, known as “legal help”, has fallen from 679,768 between 2011 to 2012 to just 126,825 in 2021.

Yet, from coronavirus to the current cost-of-living crisis, more people need legal aid than ever before. This is evident from statistics provided by the Law Society, which revealed that around 68% of people in the UK don’t have access to a community care legal aid provider and 65% don’t have access to an immigration and asylum legal aid provider.

Consequently, MPs on the justice committee have reported on the issue and urged the government to respond. Beginning last week, a pilot scheme will be offering free early legal advice for those facing debt, housing and welfare benefit issues. It’ll run for five months in Manchester and Middlesbrough.

According to The Times, The Law Society and Legal Aid Practitioners Group have also warned that “the new housing contract, under which lawyers must provide advice on debt and welfare benefits, risks putting lawyers in breach of the professional conduct rules, as they are expected to advise on issues outside their areas of expertise”.

Want to know more about legal aid? Read this LCN Says by legal aid lawyer Polly Hall.