Covid-19 could make the challenge of plugging gaps in legal aid provision even tougher, the Legal Aid Agency has said. The gloomy outlook appears in a section entitled 'significant risks and issues' in the agency’s 2019/20 annual report, published this week.
Providing simple, timely and reliable access to legal aid is one of the agency’s four strategic objectives. The report details the agency's mitigating actions to address 'gaps in legal aid provision due to insufficient provider volumes'.
The report says: 'Owing to the in-year development of this risk, it was escalated to live issue status, allowing for in-depth and regular oversight at appropriate levels.'
To maintain services across all procurement areas, the agency procured for services in seven housing and debt procurement areas, and for four housing possession court duty schemes throughout 2019/20. 'However, not all such activity has resulted in maintaining services in all areas,' the report says. ‘This remains a key challenge for the year ahead, with the potential for Covid-19 to impact further, both in terms of provider availability and client need. We continue to engage with MoJ Policy colleagues and ministers to develop strategies around service provision in the longer term.'
The Law Society and practitioners have long highlighted the prevalence of advice 'deserts' across the country. Last year the Society produced a shocking infographic that showed that over half of the population lived in a local authority that had one or no housing legal aid provider.
Earlier this week, justice minister Alex Chalk told the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid that his department will carry out a 'deep dive review' of civil legal sustainability. The Ministry of Justice has restarted its review on the legal aid means test and hopes to consult on policy options next spring.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.