More than 37 million people in England and Wales live in a local authority area without a single community care legal aid service, including over 7.5 million people aged 65 and over, the Law Society said as it published analysis revealing catastrophic legal aid deserts for community care across the country.
A new interactive map shows the vanishing number of providers in each local authority area. 79% of local authorities now have no publicly funded legal advice for vulnerable people to challenge local authority community care arrangements.
The situation is even worse than the map suggests because many of these community care legal aid lawyers provide advice in a subset of cases known as Court of Protection work, in which the client may be deprived of their liberty because they can no longer make decisions for themselves.
“A cared-for person fighting to get vital welfare services or remain in their own home will tell you legal aid is a lifeline,” Law Society president Simon Davis said.
“But almost two thirds of us live in a local authority area without a single community care legal aid service, so all too often the most vulnerable people – who may be elderly, housebound, disabled – cannot get the expert legal advice they desperately need when their care arrangements fall short.
“Anyone trying to resolve a care issue is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently and be unable to travel long distances to get that tailored advice.” Catastrophically low rates of pay for exceptionally complex, sophisticated work are forcing legal professionals across the country to withdraw from legal aid as the work is simply not economically viable.
The fees government pays for civil legal aid provision have not increased since 1994, equating to a 49% real-terms reduction. On top of this, fees were cut by a further 10% in 2011. “Inadequate community care could leave a disabled person without the support they need to dress or prepare food; an elderly person might not be able to access their community or challenge the closure of a care home,” Simon Davis said.
“The combined knock-on of shrinking local authority budgets and an advice sector decimated by legal aid cuts mean the demand for advice in community care law far outstrips supply.
“Our members tell us all too often they are having to make the heart-breaking decision to turn away people because they simply do not have the capacity to take cases on.
“Fewer and fewer solicitors are choosing to go into this area of work that requires in-depth knowledge of the welfare sector, sophisticated understanding of the law and highly developed interpersonal skills.
“If the government does not wake up to the impending catastrophe I fear this specialism could disappear altogether, leaving society greatly diminished and disempowered.
“The government must make urgent changes so everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can get the advice they need when they so desperately need it. Legal rights are meaningless if people cannot enforce them.”