Number of firms providing legal aid is halved to 5,000

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The Government has halved the number of law firms offering legal aid advice to the public in a move which lawyers claim will dramatically restrict access to justice for the most vulnerable members of society.

The Government has halved the number of law firms offering legal aid advice to the public in a move which lawyers claim will dramatically restrict access to justice for the most vulnerable members of society.

Under a new contracting scheme launched yesterday, only 5,000 firms will be authorised to offer advice in civil legal aid cases.

Under the current scheme, 11,000 solicitors' offices can give initial advice and legal assistance to clients who qualify for legal aid in civil cases.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors, said the new contracts will overnight cut legal advice outlets around the country by a half.

And it accused government ministers of betraying their pledge to make the civil justice system more accessible. It said the new scheme would leave thousands of pensioners, disabled people and the poor without proper legal advice.

"The legal aid changes are being introduced in a rushed, piecemeal and uncoordinated manner," said Robert Sayer, the Law Society's president. "Overnight the number of law firms offering initial advice to clients on legal aid will fall by a half but the public will not be able to find the remaining sources of help."

David Lock, a parliamentary secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department, rejected the criticism that more people would be without legal advice. He said that under the Community Legal Service (CLS) scheme, due to come in to force in April, most constituencies will have eight "quality-assured" legal advice outlets.

The amount of legal aid available under its new scheme will increase from £180m to £202m, he said, adding that the not-for-profit sector's share of the legal aid budget will go up by 270 per cent.

The CLS is designed to provide a proper network of law firms and legal advice centres across the country. It includes new initiatives, such as partnership agreements with local authorities, which fund local law centres, and a comprehensive Internet service.

But the Law Society noted that while the new legal aid contracts will be up and running in January, the CLS is not due to be working until April.

Mr Sayer said that the law firms, which had been offered the new contracts with the Legal Aid Board, only had two weeks to accept the new deal.

"The Lord Chancellor's Department is rushing into a grand experiment with the legal aid scheme - with the most vulnerable members of the public as its guinea-pigs," said Mr Sayer.

But a spokesman for the department said many firms which will now soon be outside the legal aid scheme had simply not made the grade by having poor track records in offering legal advice. Others either didn't bother to apply or were not sufficiently experienced in a particular field of law.

The department is withholding a further £9m in legal aid to supplement the new system when problems are discovered. Mr Lock said the reserve budget would also be used to help immigration firms, which will have to advise asylum seekers who have been relocated to other parts of the county under a Home Office scheme.