Three years after the government scrapped legal aid across swaths of civil law, more ‘advice deserts’ are materialising in the sectors that remain in scope.
Several parts of England and Wales now have inadequate housing law cover which could give rise to potential conflicts of interest, it has emerged. A number of areas have no cover at all.
The Legal Aid Agency has been trying to plug a hole in the provision of housing and debt services in Hull and the Gazette has since learned that about 20 counties have only one housing law provider.
Audrey Ludwig, director of legal services at Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality, said that there are no legal aid housing or immigration solicitors in Suffolk. Shropshire is understood to be lacking a housing provider.
Reliance on sole providers has already created conflicts of interest, Ludwig said: ‘A client was threatened with eviction for anti-social behaviour. We found that the only provider who got a legal aid contract for Suffolk could not take on this person for conflict of interest. We really struggled to find another provider.’
Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said: ‘Having just a single provider in a geographical area is inadequate because it could mean that some people who are entitled to legal aid cannot get it resulting in people being unable to get the expert advice they need.
‘Problems can also arise with conflicts of interest which prevent solicitors from acting. It is imperative that this unsatisfactory situation is addressed to ensure people can get access to justice.’
Housing Law Practitioners Association chair Simon Marciniak (pictured) said the association’s numbers ‘have fallen steadily over the last few years, which reflects the withdrawal of many legal aid providers from the market, certainly outside the London area.’
He added: ‘This is an inevitable consequence of curtailing funding, with many firms unable to undertake the cases they may have done in the past.’
Several law centres across the country have reported that other providers in their area had ‘given up’ housing legal aid contracts.
The Law Centres Network said: ‘Parliament’s intention in LASPO was that the most vulnerable people should still be able to access legal assistance. As evictions and homelessness rise steadily, a decline in housing legal aid uptake suggests that need is not being met.’
A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Agency told the Gazette that the ’vast majority’ of England and Wales have access to LAA-funded housing advice.
’We constantly monitor the situation across the country and we are actively seeking new providers in two areas’, the spokesperson added.
’Legal aid is a vital part of our justice system but we must ensure it is sustainable and fair for those who need it, those who provide services and for the taxpayer, who pays for it.
’We have made sure legal aid remains available in the most serious cases, such as where people face the loss of their home.’