Survey results also showed that a significant chunk of the public considers legal aid to be inaccessible
The number of legal aid providers in England and Wales is declining steadily, a study conducted by UK firm Bolt Burdon Kemp has revealed.
The study indicated that a decade ago, there were 4,257 providers in the region. However, the numbers plunged by 34% in 2013-2018 after major amendments were made to the civil legal aid system in England and Wales.
Bolt Burdon Kemp pointed out that there have been significant cuts in many areas of legal aid, including social welfare law. Other studies have also highlighted the struggle being experienced by law centres.
This development strongly impacts BAME communities, which are the most common recipients of legal aid in England and Wales. The firm revealed that over 70% of people involved in criminal and civil legal aid cases have BAME backgrounds.
In addition, Bolt Burdon Kemp surveyed 2,000 residents of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and results showed that 46% of these did not understand the legal aid system or how they could avail of legal assistance.
The firm pointed out that the UK has been slipping down the rankings in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index when it comes to civil justice perception, most recently dropping to 17th after it peaked at 13th in 2015. A major factor was the region’s low score with regard to the affordability of and access to civil justice.
A total of 51% of respondents to Bolt Burdon Kemp’s survey also stated their belief that there are “too many barriers to legal aid funding.”
The firm revealed that legal aid spending is linked to areas that are deprived in terms of income, employment, education and skills, health and housing. The areas of Yorkshire and the Humber, which recorded the highest levels of deprivation according to the 2019 English Indices of Multiple Deprivation, also spent the most on legal aid.
Last year, the UK Ministry of Justice offered legal aid providers a support package to help them weather the COVID-19 pandemic. The Law Society of England and Wales also called for increased government assistance for criminal legal aid providers.