British justice at risk as publicly funded legal advice vanishes

Growing numbers of people do not have access to publicly funded advice for life-changing legal issues, the Law Society of England and Wales warned as it published analysis revealing catastrophic legal aid deserts across the country.

New interactive maps* show vanishing availability of legal aid across housing, welfare, education, community care and immigration following stringent and successive government cuts to legal aid alongside stagnant rates of pay for expert providers. A new report and infographic detail the erosion of civil legal aid across all areas.

People living in areas without a major city are particularly badly hit. The south west, north east and north west are bereft in almost all legal and local authority areas. Wales also has very sparse coverage.

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said. “A fair society has a legal system where rich and poor are equally able to access justice.

“For rights to be real, everyone who is entitled to state-funded legal advice to uphold their rights should be able to get that advice when they need it.

“Our analysis shows people on lower incomes who face terrifying legal issues from domestic abuse to homelessness or who need to challenge inadequate care or education from their local authority increasingly can’t get the expert legal advice to which they are entitled.”

The fees government pays for legal aid provision have not increased for more than 20 years. On top of this fees were cut by a further 10% in 2011.

Catastrophically low rates of pay are forcing legal professionals across the country to withdraw from providing legal aid as the work is not economically viable for small businesses like solicitor firms. For instance, the number of firms providing family law legal aid has halved since 2011.

Fewer and fewer solicitors can afford to go into legal aid work, leading to an ageing profession and a pending drain of expertise unless government steps in to make the work sustainable.

I. Stephanie Boyce continued: “In the family courts there is a worrying rise in the number of litigants in person – people who do not have a lawyer to represent them. These cases often involve children or family disputes and can be distressing for all involved.

“Many cases that could be dealt with effectively through the early intervention of a lawyer escalate unnecessarily, causing untold misery to those involved and an additional burden on already threadbare courts.

“With evictions on the rise following the pandemic, more people are likely to need urgent legal aid, but 23 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes struggling to access legal advice when they are at their most vulnerable.

“Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing, family, welfare, care or immigration problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently – if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county this can be an insurmountable barrier.”

Across England and Wales:

  • 52m people (88%) do not have access to a local education provider
  • 47m (79%) do not have access to a local welfare legal aid provider
  • 40m (67%) do not have access to a local community care legal aid provider
  • 38m (63%) do not have access to a local immigration and asylum legal aid provider
  • 23.5m (39%) do not have access to a local legal aid provider for housing advice

I. Stephanie Boyce concluded: “Behind each statistic is a child not getting the education they need, a family facing eviction, fighting for welfare benefits to stay afloat in these turbulent times or a person denied a say in how they are cared for.

“The government must commit in the upcoming spending review to fund the legal aid system properly so that everyone – no matter their background – has access to legal aid when they are entitled to it. This, with measures to address the huge backlogs in civil and criminal courts, would begin to put the justice system on the long road to recovery.”

Notes to editors

* View our interactive legal aid desert maps showing providers by local authority area (copyright: Law Society of England and Wales):

Read our report on the sustainability of civil legal aid

The heat maps were compiled from the directory of legal aid providers which is published by the Legal Aid Agency.

The data was taken from the directory in August 2021, the latest available data. The directory provides information regarding the number and geographical location of firms holding legal aid contracts in England and Wales and is regularly updated.

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Press office contact: Harriet Beaumont | 0208 049 3854

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