Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABs) warned last week that the legal aid system was “being audited out of existence” as lawyers quit over red tape. CAB chief executive David Harker told delegates at their annual conference that Government policy in this area was “delivering injustice and unfairness in a way that was inexcusable”.
“There are various reviews going on, from that of the Community Legal Service to David Clementi’s review of regulation,” he said. “But the reality, experienced by our bureau staff, is that there’s a continuing and deepening crisis in the provision of publicly funded legal services to the people who need them most. Hundreds of legal aid lawyers are calling it a day – audited out of existence.”
This was leading to the growth of “advice deserts”, or areas where “the poor and socially excluded wander in ever-increasing circles looking for help”, Harker said. The CAB has published a report documenting such deserts, including Leatherhead in Surrey, for example, where there was not one single legal aid solicitor, or Kent, where there were no housing solicitors offering legal aid. He complained of the “Byzantine level of bureaucracy” in dealings with the Legal Services Commission, which poses “a clear and present danger to many bureaux”.
Bar chairman Matthias Kelly QC echoed such concerns. “This report bears out our fears that the Access to Justice Act 1999, which all but abolished civil legal aid, has turned out to be a sorry misnomer,” he said.
Law Society Chief Executive Janet Paraskeva said that underinvestment in legal aid meant many solicitors had left the profession. “Current expenditure on legal aid would fund the health service in England and Wales for just 14 days, or education for 16 days,” she said. “We’ll see greater social injustice and inequality unless there’s a change in the Government’s legal aid policy.”