Up to two-thirds of general practitioners say that the number of patients they see in need of legal advice has increased in the past year.
In a survey of 1,000 GPs, 67% said the number of people who would gain from legal assistance for benefits advice has risen.
A similar proportion found an increase in patients needing debt advice, while 54% reported that patients they saw would benefit from legal help with housing problems.
The survey found 88% of the GPs questioned agreed that patients’ health would suffer if they could not get legal advice to solve their dispute.
The poll, conducted by the Legal Action Group and funded by the Law Society, appears to back up fears voiced in a National Audit Office report last month that the government had not considered the wider consequences of cutting civil legal aid in 2013.
The report, which did note the government had saved the money it promised on justice spending, stated that legal advice deserts could have a knock-on effect on people’s wellbeing.
Andrew Caplen, president of the Law Society, said the government should not ignore this independent research. ‘GPs are giving a clear warning that lack of legal advice can have consequences for a person’s health,’ he said. ‘The government should look at putting back support for legal and specialist advice services for social welfare problems.’
Steve Hynes (pictured), director of LAG, said he was surprised at how conclusive the results were, and he suggested they were further evidence that cuts had proved a false economy.
‘With early advice many social welfare law problems can be simple to resolve, but without this they can spiral out of control,’ he added.
‘This leads to injustice for many people and greater costs to health and other services.’
The Ministry of Justice has stated that legal aid is still getting to people who most need it and that ‘significant savings’ have been achieved.