Last updated:2023-09-18
Civil legal aid declines in a time of need
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Figures released today by LAG reveal a decline in the take-up of civil legal aid. Despite evidence of continuing need, LAG fears that either by accident or design the government seems to be presiding over a potentially fatal decline in civil legal aid.
LAG first raised these concerns in our report Civil Legal Aid- the Secret Legal Service, which was published in September last year. This report relied on figures from the government’s telephone advice service and showed a large shortfall in the take-up of services in some areas of law. In the updated version of the report published today figures obtained from the Legal Aid Agency in the Ministry of Justice show an overall shortfall of 28% and much larger declines in some areas of law including debt and housing cases.
Legal Aid is still available for people in danger of losing their homes and for other housing matters. Such cases can be covered by either the debt or housing law legal aid categories. Based on the government’s figures LAG predicts that a total number of 15,955 cases for mainly housing debt should have been commenced between April 2013, when the cuts to civil legal aid were first introduced and the end of March this year. In January only 85 cases had started. In housing 42,319 cases were predicted to pass through the system, but by January only 28,736 had done so.
For housing cases we are predicting a 19% overall shortfall, but this figure is overshadowed by a dramatic 97% shortfall in the numbers housing debt cases. These figures are all the more surprising given that statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that the number of housing repossession claims has been increasing, (up by 13% in January to March this year).
Overall the report reveals that out of a projected 207,029 cases only 148,062 will be started. These cases are what are known as legal help cases and involved basic help and assistance to members of the public. In some areas of law such as mental health the figures show take-up of services is in line with what would have been expected. Other categories, as well as housing and debt, show large shortfalls in the numbers of people seeking help. Special Educational Needs cases for example shows a 99% shortfall. LAG believes the failure of the government's telephone advice service could be to blame for some of the lack of take-up, as it is not making sufficient referrals to legal aid providers. 
LAG believes a combination of dwindling numbers of firms and agencies undertaking legal aid, increased bureaucratic hurdles before legal aid is granted and a low profile, caused by lack of marketing and a public perception that legal aid is no-longer available for civil cases, means that civil legal aid services are on a dangerous downward spiral. We fear if nothing is done to increase the take-up of civil legal aid, the remaining services will wither away, as their lack of use will be used to justify their loss.
Getting help with the sorts of legal problems many people face should be seen as an essential right for everyone. This is why LAG is calling on the government to urgently investigate the reasons for low up-take of civil legal aid and to increase the profile of civil legal aid services through better marketing via the web and other channels. 
A full copy of the report is available on LAG's website-