Justice drought

In some areas of Britain, publicly funded assistance in vital cases of housing, family and benefits law just doesn't exist. Jon Robins reports on legal aid 'deserts'
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Jenny, 21, from Chatham in Kent, recently fell behind with the rent. One day in February her sister went round to her house to check on Jenny's two sickly dogs and discovered that her landlord had gutted the house and was boarding it up, dogs and all. Jennylives in a "legal-aid advice desert" - one of those increasing areas of the UK where publicly funded legal advice has withered and died.

As Janet Paraskeva, the Law Society's chief executive, wrote in these pages las month: "If you live in Kent, and face a housing issue but cannot afford legal advice, then you're in for a hike. The nearest solicitor is in Sussex or London."

Jenny was lucky, as the local Citizen's Advice Bureau referred her directly to Shelter's north Kent housing advice centre. So clear was the danger that Jenny would be homeless that Shelter - which has a legal-aid franchise for advice, but not for court representation - took her case on. They obtained an injunction because the eviction was illegal, and Jenny was back in her house by 2pm the next day. The caseworker, Sally Motson, says she had never applied for an injunction before. "I am not legally qualified and it would be infinitely better if a lawyer was involved, but that wasn't an option. If we hadn't done it, she'd have been out on the streets."

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of gaps in legal-aid provision - there is a handful of divorce lawyers serving central London, one criminal defence lawyer in Cambridgeshire covering a population of 50,000, and not much of anything in North Wales. But there is nothing new about legal-aid lawyers forecasting impending doom. So are fears about advice deserts anything more than local problems?

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) acknowledges that there are "worrying gaps" in the provision of legal aid. "The suggestion that we are disinvesting in legal-aid provision is inaccurate when spending year-on-year is going up in double figures," says Clare Dodgson, its new chief executive. "Butin some areas supply and provision don't match. That is of great concern."

Spending on legal aid overshot by £272m last year. Of this, £145m was accounted for by increases in criminal expenditure and £115m by increases in asylum expenditure. However, between 1999 and 2000, and 2002 and 2003, net spending on civil legal aid was cut from £564m to £483m. The Law Society says that between March 2000 and February 2003, the number of firms offering legal aid for employment law fell by almost a quarter, and those offering housing law fell by 15 per cent.

Dodgson draws an analogy from her NHS background. "Ten years ago there were many single-handed or two-partner practices, and for positive reasons the NHS moved from that to multiskilled group practices. People have had a better service as a result." In other words, the cut in numbers is part of a trend away from high-street generalists towards specialists.

So where are the gaps? One Essex woman tried to find legal advice on the finances of her divorce. "I called more than 20 London solicitors, only to find that not one of them took legally aided standard divorce any more," she said.

A recent survey commissioned by the Solicitors Family Law Association revealed that more than half of firms with family-law contracts were reducing their legal-aid work because it was unprofitable. It found a 10 per cent drop since 2001 in the number of firms bringing in the majority of family income from publicly funded work, and predicted the figure would slump by another 17 per cent in the next two years.

Nor do the statistics reveal the whole problem. Godfrey Freeman, a family-law partner at the Liverpool firm of Morecroft Urquhart, head of the SFLA's legal-aid committee, says: "Firms cherry-pick by taking on the better-remunerated legal-aid cases - for example, the childcare and ancillary work - but other work, the old 'Green Form' stuff, they won't touch. They send it to firms such as mine, who feel aggrieved that others are taking the cream." He stops short of describing the situation as a crisis. "But perhaps it's a crisis waiting to happen. There is a slow decline in numbers - it's a drip-drip effect, but each drip makes it worse."

What has been, in effect, a decade-long pay freeze on legal-aid rates in criminal defence work has meant that lawyers have been leaving in droves. Since the introduction of the contracting regime in March 2001 (solicitors can now do legal aid only if they have an contract with the LSC) the number of firms doing criminal defence work has fallen from 7,000 to 2,990. If the defence profession is not "in crisis", it is being pushed closer to the brink.

This week, the consultation period ends for a new general criminal contract that will radically alter terms and conditions. The proposals amount to a series of pay cuts. "If we don't get this contract right, it will mark the death knell of maybe 20 per cent of defence lawyers currently operating," says the South Yorkshire solicitor Ged Hale, a Criminal Law Solicitors Association committee member.

The CLSA is calling on its members not to sign up to the new contracts next April. Such is the strength of feeling that 48 out of 50 solicitors on the Sheffield Duty Solicitors scheme last week signed a letter calling for a boycott of the duty scheme over Christmas and a halt to negotiations with the Government until rates are increased.

Gerry Martin, the manager of Gateshead Law Centre and vice-chairman of the Law Centres Federation, reports that in Durham there are almost no advice agencies that do welfare benefits and employment work. "There are private-practice solicitors who do crime and family work, but for everything else there are huge black spots where people have to travel miles to get any kind of face-to-face advice," he says. Between Newcastle and the Scottish border, there is not one advice agency capable of giving housing advice. "The LSC view is that demand can be met by phone advice - it's scandalous. It's like saying that NHS Direct can provide all the solutions to medical problems."

As for Jenny in Kent, she did eventually see a legal-aid lawyer in Orpington. She is now rehoused and, as the eviction was illegal, her rent arrears were wiped out by the damages her landlord had to pay.