The Legal Action Group (LAG) has called on the government to increase the profile of civil legal aid services, accusing it of presiding over a ‘secret’ legal service after figures show a huge shortfall in take-up this year.
The charity has also called for an urgent review of the exceptional funding mechanism, claiming that it is failing to provide a ‘human rights safety net’ as intended.
Research by LAG published today reveals a ‘disturbing reduction’ in the take-up of legal aid in civil law cases and a shortfall of up to approaching 80% since April in the number of cases expected by the Ministry of Justice.
LAG’s analysis, based on the government’s estimates of the number of cases and figures from the Legal Aid Agency, show the shortfall was 77% in discrimination cases, 68% in debt cases, 34% in housing and 12% in education.
A total of 3,866 fewer people than predicted have received civil legal aid since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act introduced sweeping cuts to the scope of aid in April.
The LAG suggests that the reduced take-up is surprising given the economic situation. It attributes the decline to the dwindling numbers of firms and agencies undertaking legal aid work, increased bureaucratic hurdles before legal aid is granted, a perception among the public that civil legal aid is no longer available and failure by the government to advertise the availability of services.
The group’s director Steve Hynes (pictured) said: ‘Either by accident or design, the government seems to be presiding over a secret legal service.
‘The fear is if nothing is done to increase the take-up of civil legal aid, the remaining services will wither away as the lack of use will be used to justify their loss.’
In addition, the LAG said that many practitioners have indicated problems in identifying clients who are eligible for public funding due to the complexity of the rules.
Russell Conway, housing law solicitor at London firm Oliver Fisher, blamed the shortfall in take-up in part on local authorities and social landlords which, he claims, have been ‘peddling the rumour’ that legal aid for housing cases has been abolished entirely.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said that the telephone number for the civil legal aid helpline had remained unchanged since 2004 and that advice organisations regularly provide it to members of the public.
Since April, he said, the helpline has been complemented by a new channel on the government website www.gov.uk, which he said had been ‘heavily promoted’. Explaining the ministry’s strategy, he added: ’The government has a digital-by-default approach. We have to ensure we get best value for taxpayers’ money.’