Vulnerable people in care ‘struggling to get free legal advice they need’

By Flora Thompson, PA Home Affairs Correspondent

Vulnerable people are struggling to challenge care plans put in place by authorities because most councils no longer offer free legal advice, lawyers have warned.

Research by the Law Society suggests 79% of local authorities no longer offer publicly funded legal advice.

More than 37 million people in England and Wales live in areas where there is not a single community care legal aid service, including 7.5 million people aged 65 and over, it is claimed.

This is an estimated 64.8% of the population living in an area where there is no community care legal aid provider, the findings indicate.

The body which represents solicitors in England and Wales has called on the Government to “wake up” to an “impending catastrophe” and “make urgent changes” so everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can get it when they need it.

It says its study reveals “catastrophic legal aid deserts for community care across the country” and through an interactive map it has produced, it can show the “vanishing number of providers” in each local authority area.

Law Society president Simon Davis said: “A cared-for person fighting to get vital welfare services or remain in their own home will tell you legal aid is a lifeline.

“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 complex work are “forcing” legal professionals across the country to withdraw from legal aid, as it is not “economically viable”, the Law Society said, accusing the Government of failing to increase pay for this type of work for more than 20 years.

Mr Davis added: “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.

“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.”

The data was compiled using information updated in December from a directory of legal aid providers published by the Legal Aid Agency, part of the Ministry of Justice.

The directory details the number and geographical location of firms holding legal aid contracts in England and Wales and is regularly updated, the Law Society said.

The map represents the number of contracts held in September. Since then to date three more providers have withdrawn but are not represented on the map, according to the body.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “There are enough solicitors and barristers for all legal aid-funded cases across England and Wales, with people able to access help from nearby providers or on the telephone if they cannot travel.

“It is misleading to compare legal aid services to local authority areas as that is not how provision is set and, in fact, there are more offices offering legal aid services now than under the previous contracts.

“The Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review to ensure that every person has access to legal advice when they need it.”

To view the map visit http://lawsociety.org.uk/legal-aid-deserts-map.