Some 79% of local authority areas have no publicly funded legal advice for vulnerable people to challenge community care arrangements, the Law Society has claimed.
Chancery Lane said its analysis had revealed that more than 7.5m people aged 65 and over lived in a local authority area without a single community care legal aid service.
The Law Society has published an interactive map, but claimed the situation was even worse than the map suggested. This was “because many of these community care legal aid lawyers provide advice in a subset of cases known as Court of Protection work, in which the client may be deprived of their liberty because they can no longer make decisions for themselves.”
Law Society President Simon Davis said: “A cared-for person fighting to get vital welfare services or remain in their own home will tell you legal aid is a lifeline… [All] too often the most vulnerable people – who may be elderly, housebound, disabled – cannot get the expert legal advice they desperately need when their care arrangements fall short.
“Anyone trying to resolve a care issue is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently and be unable to travel long distances to get that tailored advice.”
Chancery Lane claimed that “catastrophically low rates of pay for exceptionally complex, sophisticated work” was forcing legal professionals across the country to withdraw from legal aid as the work was simply not economically viable.
It said the fees paid for civil legal aid provision had not increased since 1994, equating to a 49% real-terms reduction. On top of this fees were cut by a further 10% in 2011, it suggested.
The Law Society President said: “Inadequate community care could leave a disabled person without the support they need to dress or prepare food; an elderly person might not be able to access their community or challenge the closure of a care home.
“The combined knock-on of shrinking local authority budgets and an advice sector decimated by legal aid cuts mean the demand for advice in community care law far outstrips supply.
“Our members tell us all too often they are having to make the heart-breaking decision to turn away people because they simply do not have the capacity to take cases on.”
Davis said he feared the specialism could disappear altogether, “leaving society greatly diminished and disempowered”.
The heat map was compiled by the Law Society from the Directory of legal aid providers which is published by the Legal Aid Agency on the GOV.UK website.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “There are enough solicitors and barristers for all legal aid-funded cases across England and Wales, with people able to access help from nearby providers or on the telephone if they cannot travel.
“It is misleading to compare legal aid services to local authority areas as that is not how provision is set and, in fact, there are more offices offering legal aid services now than under the previous contracts.
“The Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review to ensure that every person has access to legal advice when they need it.”
The MoJ’s data, which it says shows there are providers in each procurement area, is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/directory-of-legal-aid-providers