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Expanded legal aid eligibility welcome but access must be ensured

Proposals to expand legal aid eligibility are a substantial step in the right direction, the Law Society of England and Wales said.

A consultation on the legal aid means test was today (15 March) launched by UK government.

“Legal aid is a fundamental part of the British justice system, ensuring those who cannot afford legal advice are able to receive it in the same way as those who can,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“We have long highlighted that many who cannot afford a solicitor – including poverty-hit families – have fallen through the justice gap as they have not been eligible for legal aid because of the ungenerous means test.

“We therefore welcome the proposed changes as a substantial step in the right direction. They should result in legal aid being available to more of the people who so desperately need it when faced with legal issues ranging from domestic abuse to homelessness to being accused of a crime.

“The proposals reflect many of the points raised in our research on the way in which the means test is assessed, and we have found the engagement process with the Ministry of Justice on this topic to have been a positive one.

“We do however have some concerns, including on universal credit, where the proposed changes are likely to create unnecessary bureaucracy.

“Being eligible for legal advice is one thing, being able to access it is another with the number of both criminal and civil legal aid firms having almost halved since 2007,” added I. Stephanie Boyce.

“Our research on civil legal aid deserts and our heatmaps identifying ageing and increasingly scarce duty solicitors show there are many parts of the country where access to justice is in peril.

“The government is also announcing welcome, overdue investment in the criminal legal aid system but must take action to ensure there are enough solicitors available to undertake civil legal aid cases in the long-term.

“We will examine the proposals in detail and plan to repeat our research with Professor Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University to ensure the changes do increase eligibility to receive legal aid for those who most need it.”

We hope that these proposals will allow young people and their parents non means tested legal aid for serious medical treatment decisions.

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