IN SPITE of solicitors defections from civil Legal Aid work in protest against new contracts, the number of such cases in Huntingdonshire increased by one-fifth in the year to March. Nearly 1,100 vulnerable people living in the area have been helped with
IN SPITE of solicitors' defections from civil Legal Aid work in protest against new contracts, the number of such cases in Huntingdonshire increased by one-fifth in the year to March.
Nearly 1,100 vulnerable people living in the area have been helped with their legal problems, claims the Legal Services Commission, which administers Legal Aid.
The LSC claims that the increase is the result of changes to the way solicitors are rewarded. Unsurprisingly, since not a single solicitor in the district now handles civil Legal Aid cases, it does not claim that the Huntingdonshire needy have been represented by Huntingdonshire solicitors.
Only two firms now deal with subsidised family matters and just three - two based in Huntingdon and one in St Neots - now offer criminal Legal Aid services.
LSC regional director Lin Storey said: "The rising number of people getting legal aid to help them with their problems in housing, debt, family and other civil legal matters represents a major achievement, not least because it was done within a fixed budget.
"It is no coincidence that the growth in the number of people helped this year falls within the same period in which a new payment system has been introduced for our providers, legal aid lawyers and advice agencies.
"Tailored fixed fees, rather than the by-the-hour charging of the past, have been in place for much of this work. The current legal aid reforms are specifically about building on this to maximise access to legal aid for the future and continue increasing the numbers of people helped."
However, in Huntingdonshire, poor people who need Legal Aid for civil (non-criminal matters, other than those involving the family) must use a firm in Ely, because so many solicitors have pulled out claiming they can no longer make a living from Legal Aid work.
They have fallen victim to new rules under which the LSC is trying to cut down on the billions of pounds a year taxpayers spend on giving access to justice to people who cannot afford to pay solicitors' normal rates.
The rule changes are aimed at inner city lawyers, whose over-supply led to inefficiencies. In rural areas such as Huntingdonshire, solicitors, who for decades have accepted modest payments in the interests of universal justice, have had enough and have left the Legal Aid system in droves.
"The impact has been profound," senior district judge Robert Blomfield, who presides regularly at Huntingdon County Court and also sits as a Recorder in criminal cases, told The Hunts Post last month. "The reality is that it impacts on justice. People who cannot get advice, however good their case would be, shy away from taking action at all. I find it very worrying, and it's not going to get any better. Many people are being denied justice."
Next year's figures may tell a different story, if Judge Blomfield is proved right. But for now the LSC is upbeat.
That may be fine, but a number of the legal firms have pulled since the figures were compiled.