The UK government must shore up the beleaguered legal aid market if more generous eligibility criteria are to benefit people on lower incomes, solicitors’ leaders have warned.
The Law Society of England and Wales today published updated legal aid deserts maps (1) to accompany its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on changes to the legal aid means test (2).
“Legal aid is a lifeline for people, usually living in poverty, to help them in moments of crisis such as when they are facing eviction or seeking protection from a violent partner for themselves and their children,” Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said.
“The legal aid means test has not been updated in line with inflation for 13 years, in which time prices have risen 40%.
“The widening of eligibility that should now come from the government’s proposals is good news, if long overdue.
“However, government wants to uprate the means test to 2019 prices, which is already out of date, and then freeze it at that level until 2026.
“By then the cost-of-living crisis is expected to have driven prices up by a breath-taking 20%, leaving many unable to afford legal advice but being judged by 2019 standards to be too wealthy to qualify for legal aid.
“People will also only see the benefits of eligibility changes if there is significant investment in the legal aid sector.
“Fewer and fewer firms can afford to provide civil legal aid advice because rates of pay for this work have not been uprated for 25 years.
“Our updated legal aid deserts maps show a sector in crisis. Month after month law firms providing legal aid are closing their doors, leaving large areas of the country with no access to face-to-face legal aid services.
“If the government truly wants to ensure people facing poverty are not left to fend for themselves when they face life-changing legal problems, it must take a 360-degree approach:
- “Uprate the means test annually to keep pace with the spiralling cost of living
- “Set thresholds so nobody’s income and capital falls below a minimum standard of living if they have to pay their own legal costs
- “Invest in both criminal and civil legal aid providers so anyone eligible for legal aid can find an expert to help them when they need them”
Notes to editors
- Read our response to the government’s means test proposals
- See our new legal aid deserts maps
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