Millions of people are living in local authorities without any Legal Aid providers. Coodes is one of the few firms in Cornwall to provide Legal Aid. Elizabeth Ellis from our family law team explains why it’s such a big issue.
What does not having Legal Aid mean for family law?
Having access to Legal Aid is a fundamental right in the UK. But a recent report by legal analytics firm LexisNexis has revealed that your postcode can determine how accessible this vital help is.
The report shows several ‘legal aid deserts’ across the country – areas where demand outstrips local authority supply. The areas highlighted include parts of Devon and the Isles of Scilly.
The imbalance is affecting legal support across different sectors, including criminal and housing law. But family legal support is also being affected. This is deeply concerning.
Suffering in silence
If people cannot access the Legal Aid they are entitled to, they might not get help when they need it most.
In addition, the picture is likely to be worse than this report suggests because it might be that there are family Legal Aid providers shown on the maps who are providing Legal Aid for cases relating only to children in care, not other areas, such as family breakdowns, divorce, or child contact. Also, we understand that even those firms with Legal Aid contracts are not always in a position to take on new clients and therefore the situation becomes even more difficult for clients trying to access support.
The effect on law firms
Demand for Legal Aid has increased dramatically as a result of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. Only certain firms across the country – including Coodes – offer the Legal Aid scheme, which means workloads can get very busy.
Recent figures show that over the past decade, the number of family Legal Aid firms has more than halved. From July 2021 to July 2022, another 83 family Legal Aid offices closed down.
Ideally, it would be great to see the number of Legal Aid providers across the country increase, but there is no easy way to make that happen.
Use existing structures
It might be that part of the solution lies with more outsourced and remote ways of working. We use video calls for procedures such as a directions hearings, meaning that advocates don’t always have to travel to court.
The structures are there and being developed all the time. Building on the tools we have could go some way to improving access to the right support for people living in these Legal Aid deserts.
More family lawyers
This is, I realise, an obvious solution but one that I think needs looking at. We need more numbers coming into the profession to be able to keep up with the demands of an increasingly overstretched system.
For me, working in family law is so rewarding. Yes, it can be tough at times but then you get those incredible results that make it all worthwhile. It is a shame to think that there is not the provision out there so that everybody who needs our help is able to access it.
Understanding where Legal Aid deserts exist is important because it will help us work towards addressing the imbalance.
Cornwall is quite reasonably well served for Legal Aid provision, but some of our neighbouring areas are clearly struggling. There is no straight-forward solution, but we all need to be part of the conversation about how we can help some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
To get in touch with a member of our Family Law team, you can use our Contact Us form or call us on 0800 328 3282.