LOW-INCOME families are being denied access to justice in Huntingdonshire because of recent changes to the way solicitors are paid, a senior judge claims. Not a single solicitor in the district now handles civil Legal Aid cases, only two firms deal with s
LOW-INCOME families are being denied access to justice in Huntingdonshire because of recent changes to the way solicitors are paid, a senior judge claims.
Not a single solicitor in the district now handles civil Legal Aid cases, only two firms deal with subsidised family matters and just three - two based in Huntingdon and one in St Neots - now offer criminal legal aid services, as we explained last month.
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 because they can no longer make a living from Legal Aid work.
They have fallen victim to new rules under which the Legal Services Commission, which administers Legal Aid contracts with solicitors, 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 have had enough and have left the Legal Aid system in droves.
"The impact has been profound," senior district judge Robert Blomfield (pictured), who presides regularly at Huntingdon County Court and also sits as a recorder in criminal cases, told The Hunts Post last week. "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."
Once a case reaches the courts, judges will strive to find a just result. What worries Judge Blomfield is not the lack of a fair trial but the lack of any trial at all.
Only those who risked being sent to prison - in either criminal or civil cases - could expect free legal representation, he added.
Christopher Cuthbert, from Huntingdon solicitors John White & Company, said many local firms had not renewed their Legal Aid contracts with the Legal Services Commission. Not a single firm in the district now did civil Legal Aid work, only two accepted family cases and three did criminal work (a fourth, from Ramsey, pulled out on April 1 after decades of free court work).
"There's general anxiety in the legal profession," Mr Cuthbert added.