The number of legal aid providers has fallen by 20% in the last years, government statistics have revealed.
The figures, published by justice minister Sam Gyimah in response to a parliamentary written question from his Labour shadow, Gloria De Piero, show that the number of legal aid firms fell from 2,991 to 2,393 between 2012 and 2017.
The largest drop in provision was in Wales, where the number of firms fell by 29%. Bristol and Manchester also saw drops of over 25%, while London had the smallest fall – 13%.
The exodus followed the introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which removed whole swathes of law from the scope of public funding.
The government has pledged to review the impact of the act and other legal aid cuts by next spring, but De Piero said it had failed to respond to a question on the review’s status. Next week, at its conference, the Labour party will publish the final report of the Bach Commission’s review of legal aid.
De Piero said: ‘How much you earn shouldn’t make a difference to whether you can get legal advice on a bad landlord or a protection order against an abuser, but it’s clear that the government’s cuts to legal aid are making it harder for people to access justice.’
Commenting on the figures, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Carol Storer, said: ‘We hear from legal aid practitioners on a regular basis – those pulling out of legal aid work as well as those who are trying to deliver a service but find the low rates of pay and the level of unpaid bureaucracy makes the work unsustainable.
‘They live in hope but not expectation that rates will be increased. These are committed, knowledgeable lawyers who want to work in their community but until banks accept it to secure overdrafts, they cannot live on idealism.’
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, said: ‘Behind these figures are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, and challenges to welfare benefits assessments.
‘This data also calls attention to the fact that increasingly it is no longer economically viable for solicitors to do this work.’
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: ‘Maintaining access to justice remains absolutely vital and continues to be at the heart of our reforms.
‘Legal aid resources are focused on those who most need legal advice or help. We are also making wider changes which will make it easier for domestic violence victims to qualify for the financial support they need to pay for legal representation.’
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