Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Poorer areas miss out on extra legal aid cash

LAG has published an analysis of the Legal Services Commission’s (LSC’s) distribution of an extra £10 million for help with civil law problems (see: The figures show that many of the poorest areas in the country missed out on the cash for more cases that was supposed to counter the impact of the recession.

Liverpool, the east London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, Manchester and Knowsley are the top five most deprived areas according to government statistics and none of them received money for extra matter starts, to use the jargon, for debt, welfare benefits and other social welfare law work. In contrast solicitors and not-for-profit agencies such as Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx), in three out of the five most prosperous areas, West Berkshire, Surrey and Rutland were all invited to apply for the extra money. Out of the top 20 most deprived areas only three received more cash while 15 from the 20 most prosperous areas did. Overall the figures show 20 per cent of the most deprived areas got only 23 per cent of the cash, while 20 per cent of the least deprived areas got 73 per cent of the cash.

The £10 million was allocated to matter starts in both family and social welfare law in the last six months of last year by the LSC. The LSC argues that the explanation for the seemingly unfair distribution of the money is due to its ‘indicative spend formula’ which it says seeks to rectify the uneven pattern of spending across the country.

We do not know if the indicative spend formula is fair as it has not been piloted or independently verified. Even if it had been, these figures still illustrate the bizarre postcode lottery that operates in allocating legal aid funds. The recession is hitting these areas the hardest. This is illustrated by the unemployment figures which show that it is the poorest areas that are losing the most jobs. It would seem that they are also missing out on the extra legal aid needed to tackle the problems unemployment brings in its wake.

One of the main issues with legal aid services is that the pattern of provision was largely set over the last 30 years by firms choosing to set up practices, not surprisingly, where there was sufficient concentration of clients to make their businesses viable, which tended to mean urban areas. As far as not-for-profit provision goes, well-funded CABx, Law Centres® and other advice agencies tend to be sited in the same areas, those with large local authorities which have the cash to spend on advice services. When such services are available clients pursue their legal rights, but demand often outstrips supply, as the full waiting rooms of many advice agencies and solicitors illustrate.

Recent comments from the minister for legal aid, Lord Bach, indicate that the government now recognises that these services have been chronically under-funded over the years and do not cover every part of the country. The question LAG asks is does the government have the political will to establish a rational system of planning based on client needs and is it willing to find the necessary injection of cash to ensure that all of the country is covered by an adequate level of services?

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