At least a third of law centres will close if government plans to cut legal aid funding go ahead this autumn, solicitors have predicted.
The warning came after the UK’s largest not-for-profit social welfare law firm, Law for All, went into administration, weeks after the Immigration Advisory Service also collapsed.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Federation, said 18 of the 56 law centres nationwide were particularly susceptible to closure, because legal aid accounts for more than 60% of their revenue. Legal aid rates will be cut by 10% across the board this October.
Her concerns were echoed by Bob Nightingale, chief executive of the London Legal Support Trust, who added that ‘many more’ than a third were likely to cease trading.
He said: ‘The die was cast when the Legal Services Commission stopped paying legal aid up front, but transferred the cashflow burden from government to provider by paying in arrears. Law centres have no cash reserves for downsizing. The 10% cut will see many off, with many more to follow as the other cuts begin to bite.’
Bishop said the Ministry of Justice’s removal of welfare advice and most debt, employment and housing advice from the scope of legal aid will slash the number of clients receiving help from law centres each year from 120,000, to just 40,000.
‘Where will those unrepresented 80,000 go? Their problems will get worse, which will cost the government more,’ she added.Paula Twigg, advice services director at the Mary Ward Legal Centre in London, said her centre would ‘probably have to close down’.
She said: ‘At least half our clients want help with benefits, yet that work is going out of scope.’
Anne McNicholas, supervising solicitor at Paddington Law Centre, said it was facing a £45,000 cut in its local authority funding on top of legal aid cuts. She said it was not clear how the centre could survive.
Law Society president John Wotton said that the law centre closures would mean there was ‘no true access to justice’.The MoJ is to provide a £20m fund to help law centres to make the transition to the new tighter funding regime. However, law centre solicitors suggested this would not be enough to keep them afloat.
‘We need permanent, not transitional funding if we are to survive,’ said Twigg.
An MoJ spokesman said the not-for-profit sector was not exempted from the need to make more efficient use of taxpayers’ money within the legal aid system.
He added that the MoJ has set up a transition fund that will make £107m available to the wider voluntary sector.
Last week, social welfare provider Law for All blamed the impending 10% legal aid cuts and the burden of LSC bureaucracy for its decision to go into administration.
An LSC spokesman said its priority was to work with the firm’s administrators to ensure clients receive the help they need.
Earlier in July, national not-for-profit provider the Immigration Advisory Service also went into administration, citing legal aid cuts as a reason for its closure.