Guest blog: legal aid deserts - the case for levelling up access to justice

Areas of the UK have no or severely limited provisions of legal aid. Targeted support is needed to change this.

18 August 2022

5 minute read

Guest blog by Sophie Lama, Law student at Leeds University, who joined CPP for a week-long placement led by the Social Mobility Foundation.

Whether you need to defend your innocence, fight for custody of your children, or take a landlord to court, the law is inescapable. The corner stone of the rule of law, access to justice is a fundamental foundation on which the justice system stands. Without it, faith in justice and a fair society for all flounders.

Since 1949, legal aid has proven to be a lifeline, providing legal advice and representation to those unable to afford it. Following the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), however, provisions have been stunted. Both a removal of funding in areas such as employment and benefit cases, and stricter household income limits have resulted in legal aid being available to less than a quarter of the population. At the same time, the number of legal advice centres has dropped drastically. As a result, there are now areas of the UK where there are no or severely limited provisions of legal aid, known as legal deserts. Many of them are in former Red Wall seats such as Bassetlaw and Don Valley – the target of the levelling up agenda. Those left with nowhere to turn have only three options: debt, self-representation, or legal advice centres.

A trained solicitor costs a guideline minimum of £178 per hour. Without access to legal aid, lengthy criminal cases can leave people with tens of thousands of pounds in debt. Or there is self-representation, but those who choose this route struggle. Archaic language, stress, and lack of accessible legal advice only serve to further confuse and punish those who already need help. Without doubt, the only viable option is to consult an advice centre.

Charities such as the Law Centre Network are a source of free legal advice. They receive funding via legal aid and local authorities, whose budgets have also taken a hit in recent times. Currently, only 42 law centres remain, with access unequal in different regions. One such stark difference is that the North-West has 49% of residents without housing legal aid providers, compared to just 3% in London. The story is much the same in Red Wall areas. The South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority has a single law centre in Sheffield, catering to whole SYMCA region of over 1.3m residents. This is not through lack of demand, however, as the number of households at risk of homelessness – a common scenario in which legal aid is required – increased by 242% in the first quarter of 2022. Accessibility is further highlighted as an issue by the World Justice Project, which ranked the UK 88th out of 128 in that category. Getting help has been described as a “postcode lottery” by the Director of Legal Action Group.

The current issues around accessing help in the legal system are beginning to be acknowledged. In 2019, an MOJ report set out a “first step” in bringing about changes. In the Autumn of 2020, the Government awarded £2 million to organisations providing legal support at regional and local levels to provide greater support during the pandemic. It was recognised that investment at a local level would be far more targeted and put to use supporting those who need it most. This is because the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing issues around social welfare such as housing, employment, and debt, increasing demand to previously unseen levels. As we enter a cost of living crisis, there is no doubt that these already stretched services will face yet more demand as inflation rises.

An additional £3.2bn was announced in last year’s budget, to be provided by 2024-25. The bulk of this, however, is focused solely on recovering from court backlogs caused by the pandemic, not tackling the widespread lack of legal support across vast swathes of the UK.

If the government wants to level up access to legal support across the UK, targeted, localised support is required. Unlike the failed trials of Community Legal Advice Centres that fizzled out due to a lack of funding, a comprehensive, steadfast, fully financed scheme must be developed. Central government must study the degree of need by area, then grant regions that are legal aid deserts the resources to implement locally based legal services. One option to deliver this would be increasing development around community hubs. In addition to the services already provided around health, advice, and employability, extra funding would be allocated to local communities to create a legal services provision within these hubs. This would ensure that legal advice is accessible across the UK, providing a safety net to all citizens.