Extensive cuts to civil legal aid that come into force this week will result in vulnerable people struggling to find help as “advice deserts” open up in parts of the country, a survey warns.
The first assessment of the impact of cutting £350m from the legal aid budget found that more than a quarter of the lawyers and advisers who responded said they were at risk of losing their jobs.
Although the cuts formally come into force this week, their impact is already being felt.
Some law centres have started charging client’s fees or turning them away.
The Red Cross has announced the end of its support for family reunion claims, the housing charity Shelter has shut down nine advice offices across England with the loss of about 100 jobs and some Citizens Advice Bureaux have sent out redundancy notices.
From Today civil legal aid is no longer available for cases involving divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, welfare, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefit and education.
The government and the Big Lottery Fund are providing £65m of transitional support over the next two years to law and advice centres to smooth the changeover as well as opening up telephone and online advisory services.
The Bar Council, which represents barristers, is publishing a handbook this week to help claimants who will have to represent themselves in court.
The survey, carried out by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick and the website ilegal, received responses from more than 670 people working in the legal aid-supported sector of the law.
It found that around 29% believed they were personally at risk of losing their jobs due to cuts in legal aid.
The most experienced caseworkers and lawyers were those at greatest risk of redundancy as well as those working in areas of increasing demand such as housing, debt and welfare benefits, the study reported.
The new Bar Council Guide on Representing Yourself in Court tells litigants how to put together a case. It advises on what to wear in court (“dress as smartly as you can”), what to pack (all your documents) and how fast to speak (“about half your normal speed”).
According to the government’s own assessment, about 600,000 people will lose access to advice and legal representation.
Now that civil legal aid is no longer available for cases involving divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, welfare, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefit and education it will create a two tier system. Some people will be able to afford the legal fees and some will not.
In the case of family law this two tier system is not putting the welfare of the child first as one of the contesting parties may not be able to afford the legal costs or the cost of a DNA paternity test to determine the relationship of a child.