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The incredible shrinking legal aid statistics
Friday 20 July 2012 by Catherine Baksi
Worrying signs that clients could already be finding it harder to access legal advice, even before next year’s legal aid cuts come in to force, emerge from the latest annual statistics from the Legal Services Commission.
The LSC’s annual report, published last week, reveals that the total number of acts of assistance it funded over the past year fell by 7.5%, from 2.7 million in 2010-11 to just under 2.5 million.
Given the economic climate that seems odd. One might expect that a downturn in the economy would mean more people are in need of legal advice and, with high unemployment figures, that more people are eligible for legal aid. Breaking down those figures, annual statistical data released at the same time, shows that the number of civil contracts held by solicitors’ firms fell from 2,039 in 2010-11 to 1,711 last year and the number of criminal contracts fell from 1,733 to 1,640.
Consequently the number of solicitors’ offices where clients could go for help decreased. There are 406 fewer civil and 109 fewer criminal offices this year than there were last year.
With the number of solicitors’ offices declining, it might be expected that clients with potential problems would make greater use of telephone services to get help.
But the data shows that the number of people using the telephone to seek publicly funded legal advice dropped by 22% in 2011/12, down from 124,819 cases to 97,872. And use of the telephone triage service fell by 24%, from 264,339 calls last year to 200,737 this year.
This shows that people are not opting to use the telephone where they cannot physically access legal services, perhaps due to language or other communication difficulties, lack of a telephone or other vulnerabilities. This drop comes as the government is figuring out how to implement plans for a mandatory telephone gateway, which people will have to call before getting advice on any civil or family problem.
The government hails the ‘telephone gateway’ as a way of making advice more accessible, but the evidence suggests that the telephone is not the way people seek help, and therefore the new regime will do nothing to assist access to justice.
Where people have increasingly gone to seek help are Community Legal Advice Centres (CLACs), organisations set up to provide one-stop shop advice on clusters of problems. They saw a 51% upturn in the number of family cases dealt with last year, rising from 1,380 to 2,088 and a 37% increase in the number of non-family cases, up from 17,135 in 2010/11 to 23,500 in 2011/12.
In April the LSC announced it will be ending the nine remaining CLAC contracts next year. Perhaps it needs to rethink.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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