Over half of the population of England and Wales is living in a local authority that has one or no housing legal aid provider, the Law Society reveals today, producing another shocking infographic that highlights 'catastrophic' legal aid advice deserts.
According to the Society's interactive map, 184 out of 348 local authorities have no housing provider; 81 have one provider. A further 29 local authorities have two providers, 17 have three, and 37 have more than three.
Those living in the south west are hit worst, with 92% of the region living in a local authority with one or no provider, followed by the East of England (91%), the south east (82%), and the East Midlands (79%).
Suffolk has no provider. In Cornwall, one firm covers a population of over 500,000 spread over 1,300 square miles.
Reliance on one provider in a large area can lead to several problems, the Society said. Those on incomes low enough to qualify for legal aid are unlikely to be able to afford to travel far to see a solicitor. The sole provider may not have sufficient capacity to help everyone. They will not be able to represent both landlord and tenant. If the firm has acted for the landlord on a non-housing related matter, it would not be able to act for the tenant.
Society president Christina Blacklaws said: 'More than 21 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes struggling to access the legal advice they are entitled to when they are at their most vulnerable.
'Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently - if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county they might as well be on Mars.'
This is the second infographic to be published by the Society. The first, published in 2016, showed that nearly a third of legal aid areas had just one solicitor provider, with Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk having none.
The government cut vast swaths of civil law from the scope of legal aid in 2013. Within housing, homelessness, harassment, eviction due to rent arrears and disrepair that endangers tenants' health survived the cull. Legal aid fees have not risen for 20 years. The Society says 'catastrophically' low rates of pay are forcing practitioners to withdraw from the legal aid market.
Blacklaws said: 'The government must ensure everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can actually get it when they so desperately need it. Legal rights are meaningless if people can’t enforce them.'
The latest data was compiled from the Legal Aid Agency's February 2019 directory of providers.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'It is misleading to compare legal aid services to local authority areas as that is not how provision is set – people can be covered by nearby providers or over the telephone if they are unable to travel.
'There are more offices offering housing advice services now than under the previous contract and we are launching a series of pilots offering support to people with social welfare problems like housing, including expansion of early legal advice.'