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More evidence of the imminent collapse of the legal aid scheme in certain parts of the country was produced on Friday, if further proof was needed.
According to a new report by Citizens Advice published this week, almost two-thirds of Citizens Advice Bureaux claim that they could not direct a client to a legal aid lawyer prepared to advise on a marriage breakdown, or if they were thrown out by an unscrupulous landlord. One in four report that they could not point a client in the direction of an employment lawyer if they were to be unfairly sacked.
A creeping breakdown of the Community Legal Service (CLS) is leading to what has been called 'Legal Aid advice deserts' – those growing tracts of the country which are totally devoid of publicly funded advice. The Law Society brought attention to the dire state of affairs when it reported last year that, for example, if you live in Kent, and face a housing problem but could not afford legal advice, then you could be in for a hike. Apparently, the nearest solicitor is in Sussex or London.
Citizens Advice now spell out the human consequences of this desertification. It reported that one man, suffering from osteo-arthritis, in Feltham, Middlesex, has been living in his car for the last eight months after being made homeless when his marriage broke down. His application for housing was turned down and he was unable to find a lawyer to challenge the housing authority's decision.
According to the group, the legal aid system is now "in danger of collapse" and one in four bureaux claim to be an oasis in an advice desert. "The CLS has great potential," said David Harker, Citizens Advice Chief Executive. "But the system is not yet meeting the need for consistent and accessible advice and representation which people should be able to expect. Unless these problems are addressed urgently it is hard to see how the CLS has any viable future." Frankly, the prognosis doesn't look good.
According to new Law Society research, almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of all solicitors firms are planning to cut back on Legal Aid work over the next five years. At that rate, the legal aid map in 2010 could be as barren and featureless as the Sahara.