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Almost 22 million people are living in “legal aid deserts”, where the local authority does not have a housing legal aid provider, leaving the elderly and vulnerable struggling to access advice when they most need it.
According to data analysed by the Law Society 184 out of 348 local authorities have no legal aid housing provider, while 81 have just one. Some 29 local authorities have two providers, 17 have three, and 37 have more than three.
Whole rural counties, such as Shropshire and Herefordshire have no providers, while in Cornwall one firm is responsible for a population of more than 500,000 spread over around 2,000 square miles.
Reliance on one provider can create significant issues, said Law Society President Christina Blacklaws: “Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently – if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county they might as well be on Mars.”
In addition, if only one firm is available in a locality it may not have the capacity to take on every case.
Blacklaws added: ‘The government must ensure everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can actually get it when they so desperately need it. Legal rights are meaningless if people can’t enforce them.’
Large areas of civil law were removed from the legal aid scheme in 2013 under government plans to save £350m a year. In addition, the Society points out that legal aid fees have not risen for 20 years, leading to some practitioners withdrawing from the legal aid market.
Speaking to the Law Society Gazette, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “It is misleading to compare legal aid services to local authority areas as that is not how provision is set – people can be covered by nearby providers or over the telephone if they are unable to travel.
“There are more offices offering housing advice services now than under the previous contract and we are launching a series of pilots offering support to people with social welfare problems like housing, including expansion of early legal advice.”