Civil legal aid is under threat – it’s time to act
The civil legal aid system is a pillar of our justice system, providing support to thousands every year. For a family going through a domestic dispute, or a person facing eviction, civil legal aid can be the only lifeline to uphold their legal rights.
However, its ability to help people is declining. In 2020–21, 115,912 new civil matters were opened, a severe drop from 933,793 in 2009–10.
Civil legal aid is being eroded and with it our ability to access our rights. A generation of cuts and stagnant rates of pay have pushed many firms to the brink of bankruptcy and forced many solicitors to seek other areas of practice.
In 2010–11, there were 2,401 providers completing family law legal aid work; in 2019–20, there were only 1,254.
Growing legal aid deserts
Our latest maps (updated from those we produced in 2019 and 2020), show legal aid deserts are growing across England and Wales, creating areas where many do not have easy or local access to legal aid, advice and support.
Almost 40% of the population of England and Wales do not have a housing legal aid provider in their local authority area, a figure that has grown by around 2% since 2019.
In the other areas of law, coverage is scarcer:
Without the means to get expert legal advice from a solicitor, some are forced to act on their own behalf (‘litigants in person’).
There has been a worrying rise in the number of litigants in person in the family courts. 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 solicitor escalate to the courts unnecessarily.
The number of family mediation meetings has also declined by 66% between 2012–13 and 2017–18, as those without access to a solicitor may not understand the alternatives to the courts.
Not only does this force people to deal with the stress of preparing for a potentially life-changing court appearance without legal support, it also puts an additional burden on our overstretched courts.
Cases where litigants represent themselves tend to take longer and require greater interventions from judges to support the litigant.
The need for early advice
Changes to the system in 2012 have meant that legal aid is generally no longer available for early advice.
This has meant that issues can quickly escalate, leading to homelessness or debt.
The government is exploring a pilot of early advice in areas of welfare that relate to housing, but it must move faster.
We are calling for the restoration of legal aid for early advice in family law, housing and welfare. By providing early support and advice, cases can be resolved as quickly as possible.
Our civil legal aid campaign
Civil justice is being put out of reach for millions: behind each statistic is a family facing eviction, denied welfare, or a person unable to have a say in how they are cared for.
By funding our system properly, we can ensure they have access to adequate support to navigate these challenges.
That is why we are launching a campaign to raise awareness of the decline of our civil legal aid system and to call for urgent action to reverse the damage that has been done.
We have published an overview of the sustainability of civil legal aid, outlining the pressures on the system and making a series of recommendations.
The government’s ongoing spending review presents a clear opportunity to invest in our civil legal aid system. It also presents an opportunity for the government to realise the efficiencies in spending that will come from properly funding early legal advice, ending many problems before they escalate.
We are calling upon the government to urgently begin its review of the sustainability of the civil legal aid system.
This review must address the financial viability of firms and the level of complexity and bureaucracy within the legal aid system.
Alongside it, the Ministry of Justice should carry out a cost-benefit analysis of legal aid to properly understand the value of spending on legal aid to the taxpayer.
Our civil legal aid system ensures that justice is accessible, regardless of wealth or background. We cannot take it for granted.
If the system is allowed to degrade, we will soon wake up to find that our legal rights are inaccessible when we need them most.
What you can do
We are calling on all our members to help us to raise awareness of declining access to civil legal aid.
Firms are disappearing, and legal aid deserts are growing across the country.
By sharing our maps, you can help us to demonstrate how access to civil legal aid is shrinking, and encourage the government to begin its review of civil legal aid as soon as possible.