Low legal aid rates and onerous contract requirements have contributed to the ‘catastrophic decline’ in community care work over the past decade, according to a worrying report seen by the Gazette.

Access Social Care (ASC), which provides access to justice for people with social care needs, commissioned research to explore why vulnerable individuals were struggling to find a specialist legal aid provider.

Community care remained in scope of legal aid when the controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force in 2013. However, official figures contained in the report show that 427 legal help matters were started between January and March 2021 – a 77% drop on 2011 figures. Legal help is the first stage of civil legal aid funding which covers pre-litigation advice.

As a result of research commissioned in 2020, ASC knew the steep decline was not due to a reduced need for specialist advice.

Over 18 months ASC’s legal team tried to refer every case that fell within the scope of legal aid to a legal aid provider. Often, they were told there was no capacity. Unofficially, they were told the cases were loss-making and therefore difficult to take on. The team had better luck referring urgent cases or cases more likely to be issued in court, which are paid at higher rates.

The report also found that the Legal Aid Agency’s supervisor requirements undermined community care as a career pathway. Providers are required to have a full-time equivalent supervisor in community care. One individual working full-time is not allowed to supervise multiple categories of law.

Recommendations which ASC says can be implemented quickly include reviewing the process for moving between legal help and certificated work to achieve a ‘better fit’ with the staged nature of many community care cases. The Legal Aid Agency remove the requirement that supervisors be owners of the provider organisation and practitioners who work part time to be supervisors.

Lainey Gough, Access Social Care’s director of operations and impact, said: ‘The future for specialist community care practice is bleak. The difficulties in accessing such advice is not the result of a lack of demand but a lack of supply. Demand for this type of legal work is going to increase as the population ages and we need to ensure that those requiring specialist advice receive it. Early legal advice can make a significant difference to people who are entitled to social care, securing care and support to meet essential needs. Early resolution is also often less costly to the public purse and avoids the stress and expense of legal proceedings.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘We want to ensure legal gets to those who need it most and we keep all provision, including for community care cases, under constant review – taking quick action where gaps emerge.’

The report was funded by the Legal Education Foundation.


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