Friday, 4 September 2009

No time to pull your punches!

Citizens Advice published a report in July, No time to retire – legal aid at 60, which warns that more people are being denied access to civil legal aid despite a huge increase in demand fuelled by the recession. It argues that fewer people are getting civil legal aid due to barriers such as patchy geographical provision, long waiting times and complex qualifying criteria.

Two surveys carried out by Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) in 2008 and 2009 discovered that CAB across England and Wales regularly find it almost impossible to locate a Community Legal Service (CLS) lawyer for court and tribunal proceedings, or a legal aid lawyer to deal with specialist issues. Seventy-six per cent of CAB had problems finding a CLS lawyer to deal with urgent employment cases, while 75 per cent could not find a CLS lawyer to deal with urgent housing matters, and 68 per cent said they had problems finding a CLS lawyer to take on urgent family cases.

These are damning statistics and they confirm what LAG, legal aid providers and other commentators are saying about the availability of legal aid, but the report has received little coverage in the media. This is a great shame because it also challenges the commonly-held view in government circles that voters are not concerned about legal aid. Independent research commissioned by Citizens Advice for the report showed great public support for legal aid. Two thousand people were questioned in March this year - 92 per cent thought it was either very important (68 per cent) or quite important (24 per cent) for people on low incomes to get legal aid for problems such as debt, benefits, family law, housing and employment. LAG would argue that a similar opinion poll needs to be conducted on criminal legal aid to gauge public support for legal aid and its importance in ensuring a fair trial for people accused of a crime.

Hopefully, the support for civil legal aid reflected in the survey results and the concerns expressed in the report will be given greater prominence in the run-up to the general election. A higher profile for legal aid in the election campaign is needed to head-off any belief that legal aid is a 'soft option' for cuts and, most importantly, to convince the public that their money is being wisely spent on providing access to justice.

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