The Ministry of Justice has announced that over five million more people will be eligible for legal aid as a result of proposed means test reforms – however many will be unable to access it due to the dwindling number of providers, the Law Society has warned. 

Three years after announcing a legal aid means test review, the Ministry of Justice finally published proposed changes yesterday.

Proposals for civil legal aid include increasing income thresholds using an approach based on cost of living, disregarding property that is the subject matter of dispute and removing the test for children under 18.

For criminal legal aid, proposals include increasing the income thresholds for legal aid in the magistrates’ and Crown courts to take into account increases in the cost of living and private legal fees.

The department estimates that two million more people will have access to civil legal aid and 3.5 million more people will have access to criminal legal aid in the magistrates’ court as a result of its proposals.

The Society welcomed the proposed changes as a ‘substantial step in the right direction’ but president I. Stephanie Boyce pointed out that ‘being eligible for legal advice is one thing, being able to access it is another’.

She added: 'Our research on civil legal aid deserts and our heatmaps identifying ageing and increasingly scarce duty solicitors show there are many parts of the country where access to justice is in peril.'

MoJ figures confirm that the number of firms with crime and civil contracts is continuing to shrink. In September, there were 1,401 firms holding a civil legal aid contract – a figure that has dropped to 1,381 in January and 1,369 in February. In April 2012 - a month before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders received royal assent - 2,134 firms held a contract. 

In criminal legal aid, 1,080 firms held a crime contract – a figure that has dropped to 1,067 in January and 1,062 in February. The numbers have continuously declined since April 2012, when there were 1,652 firms with crime contracts.

The means test review did not cover legal aid fee schemes. Yesterday the ministry published proposed reforms to criminal legal aid remuneration as part of its response to Sir Christopher Bellamy's criminal legal aid review.

An MoJ spokeperson said: 'We continue to monitor the sustainability of the civil legal aid market and will publish the government’s response to a recent consultation on the future of housing legal aid shortly. We will also shortly begin a pilot to test the impact of early legal advice.'

The Legal Aid Agency said it was confident that the market has sufficient capacity for 'increased receipts' but keeps it under constant review and will take immediate action if required.

While the Society welcomed the proposals as a substantial step in the right direction, it is concerned that proposed changes involving universal credit could create unnecessary bureaucracy.

For civil legal aid, people receiving universal credit with household earnings above £500 per month would be required to go through an income assessment rather than being 'passported'.

Jeinsen Lam, a housing solicitor at South West London Law Centres, told the Gazette that subjecting some people on universal credit to a full means test 'will increase the administrative burden for already stretched practitioners'. A more sophisticated means test 'also leads to more evidence to be requested from clients, which in turn can become a barrier to obtaining legal aid'.

The means test review consultation closes on 7 June.