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Legal aid crisis threatens the poor
The Times, April 09, 2005

LEADING lawyers will call for action today over the disintegrating state of the legal aid system to prevent people being denied access to justice.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the Labour peer, will address a rally in London backed by 15 legal advice groups, which say that lawyers are abandoning legal aid work and people are being turned away without help. This, the groups say, threatens to create a “two-tier system of justice that excludes poor people”. There are “legal advice deserts” in England and Wales, they say.
In 1999 and 2000 there were 8,900 solicitors’ firms that did some family law work, for example. By March 2002, Lady Kennedy says, there were only 3,800. The result is that “in some parts of the country a battered wife will not be able to find a legal aid solicitor to help her to obtain an injunction against a violent partner; families have to travel for hours to obtain advice about childcare proceedings and when vulnerable people . . . face eviction, there is increasingly no one to offer legal support”.
The groups, under the banner of the Access to Justice Alliance, include organisations such as Liberty, the Child Poverty Action Group, Justice, Legal Action Practitioners Group and Citizens Advice.

They condemn the record of the Community Legal Service, set up five years ago to replace the civil legal aid scheme.
Nony Ardill, chairman of the alliance, said: “There is a widespread recognition that people are being turned away as services come under increasing pressure and legal aid lawyers abandon the system.”

The number of cases funded under civil legal aid is falling and the total legal aid budget, £2 billion, is less than half of 1 per cent of total public spending, she said. “Urgent action must be taken if civil legal aid is to survive and the poorest are to have access to justice in the next five years,” Ms Ardill said.

The Government recently published a package of reforms to civil legal aid intended to focus funds on the most deserving cases and ensuring best value. David Lammy, the Legal Aid Minister, said that the reforms, “in particular those enhancing the role of legal help before resorting to litigation, fit in with a wider government agenda on social exclusion and encouraging access to justice”.

In addition, the Shadow Health Minister said yesterday that legal aid should be replaced by “no win, no fee” deals for medical negligence cases. John Baron said that there was “concern at the cost and conduct of resolving disputes arising out of alleged clinical negligence”.

Last month the Government ditched plans to scrap legal aid for such claims after it was estimates indicated that “no win, no fee” deals could cost taxpayers more.


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