Legal Aid Cuts Stir Controversy Across the Pond

In an effort to cut costs and streamline a bulky system, the Legal Services Commission in the United Kingdom is cutting its legal aid budget substantially. In the UK, subsidized legal aid is provided for those who cannot afford private representation through firms which contract with the LSC. Starting in 2008, the LSC developed a new set of criteria for contracting firms (called tendering), and firms had to submit new bids showing how they met these criteria in order to continue as providers. After the latest round of tenders, it looks like the number of providers across the UK will fall from around 2400 to 1300, according to this article from Channel 4 News (which has some good background on the reform process as well).

Though the LSC argues that the reduction in providers will not result in a reduction in the number of cases Legal Aid can handle, many lawyers are concerned that this will not be true, particularly in more rural parts of the country. The Channel 4 News article explains:

In addition, the decline in service providers will mean the loss of a legal aid lawyer in many communities. Although the LSC says there will always be a provider within 45 minutes from a persons’ home, for those with childcare, abuse or custody issues, or indeed those on low incomes, the very geography will pose a significant barrier to seeking the help they need.

Solicitors in Wales have been particularly concerned and outspoken over the cuts. WalesOnline reported last week that two family court judges in Wales have written in protest over the changes to the LSC. Additionally, the Law Society (the professional association for solicitors in England and Wales, somewhat akin to the ABA in the United States) has come out against the changes. A representative of the Society explained that the changes are creating “advice deserts,” saying

“We are worried about places like Wales where it seems the number of solicitors is being reduced by a half, we are worried about Cornwall where 50 firms are being reduced to less than 10, and places like Poole and Dorset where there is only one firm of solicitors with a contract for over 140,000 people.”

Many lawyers are demanding a review of the changes before the new tenders are finalized in October, which may lead to a delay in implementation. Seeing how different systems respond to budget restrictions may have international lessons, so we’ll keep you updated here as news develops.

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