Having access to legal advice - regardless of how much you earn, where you live or how freely you can travel - is fundamental to upholding the Rule of Law. Legal aid should act as a safety net to ensure people can access and protect their rights. That’s why LexisNexis decided to investigate the geographic locations that are most in need of legal aid support but have the least access to it.
Legal aid is fundamental to upholding the Rule of Law
Millions of us are reliant on a legal aid system that is chronically underfunded and understaffed – and it has been getting noticeably worse for years. This challenge is exacerbated for people living in remote or rural areas, where legal aid providers are few and far between.
At LexisNexis, the Rule of Law plays a central role in our purpose as an organisation – and providing people with access to legal representation, regardless of where they live or how much they earn, is fundamental to upholding the Rule of Law.
This report highlights the millions of people throughout the UK who live in legal aid deserts with limited or no access to legal aid providers. The aim is not to place blame. Instead, we want to drive the conversation about how we, as a legal community and as a society more broadly, can better support our country’s most vulnerable people.
Identifying legal aid deserts: A quick run-through of the methodology used to identify legal aid deserts throughout the UK
There's no easy way to define exactly what a legal aid desert is; nor is there only one way of viewing it. But for simplicity's sake, we have designed our own metric by comparing supply with demand in each local authority, and then characterising legal aid deserts as the local authorities at the bottom 10% of that metric. This is not the sole problem, and nor does this mean that provisioning in areas outside this metric is “good”. On the contrary, there are many areas of challenge. However, to drive the conversation, it is important to identify the areas of greatest need.
Using publicly available government data, this report compares legal need against legal aid supply to highlight the country's legal aid deserts.
We focused on the following areas of the law:
Legal need was determined by the number of legal "incidents" in a local authority area (for example, domestic abuse cases, homelessness or crimes committed), while legal aid supply was determined by using the number of legal aid providers in a local authority area as a proxy.
We then calculated legal need and supply per 10k people to make local authorities with different population densities comparable. When calculating the the need and supply of the local authorities, we also took into consideration the need and supply of neighbouring local authorities. We did this by measuring 15km from the centre point of a local authority to the centre point of a neighbouring local authority. For the sake of simplicity, our calculations ignore need and supply might be split between two different neighbouring local authorities that are not neighbours.
We then assigned a final metric to each local authority by dividing supply by need. The local authorities in the bottom 10% of that metric were given the title of legal aid desert.
It's worth noting that we were only able to work with the data available to us – a lack of data for many local authorities meant we had to make several other assumptions. Although we believe the impact of these assumptions to be insignificant, it's worth highlighting yet again the primary objective of the below maps is to raise awareness about the lack of access so many people throughout England and Wales have to the current legal aid system.
Housing legal aid deserts
The research revealed:
- 12.45m people live in legal aid deserts for housing
- The five best served local authorities have 1.74 providers per 1,000 incidents
- The housing legal deserts in the bottom 10% had 0 providers per 1,000 incidents.
To measure the need for housing legal aid throughout the country, we looked at a number of metrics, including social housing waitlists, evictions and homelessness. Our data highlighted that there are many housing legal aid deserts throughout the country and only a few areas with medium to high supply.
Family legal aid deserts
The research revealed:
- 1.09m people live in legal aid deserts for family
- The five best served local authorities have 14.43 providers per 1,000 incidents
- The family legal deserts in the bottom 10% had 0 providers per 1,000 incidents.
Demand for family work escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating more work than barristers and solicitors could get through. This increase in demand also placed a huge strain on the Family Courts, with many turning to virtual channels to make their way through a growing backlog of proceedings. The data we gathered indentifies some areas with a worryingly high demand for legal aid services and little or no local representation.
Moreover, it's worth noting that we anticipate the real numbers to be considerably higher. Unlike housing, which is highly-publicised and more likely to be reported, family law incidents often go by undetected. In addition, our research only captures public cases - if we were to add data of private cases, we believe there would be a noticeable change in the numbers and maps (with more areas showing as under-supplied). It's also worth noting that incidents for domestic abuse were determined by the police force area (PFA) as opposed to local authority - we applied this based on their population.
Crime legal aid deserts
The research revealed:
- 2.12m people live in legal aid deserts for crime
- There are only 0.89 providers per 1,000 incidents in the five best served local authorities
- The crime legal deserts in the bottom 10% had 0 providers per 1,000 incidents.
Legal aid relating to the criminal justice system has been in the spotlight recently, with thousands of barristers striking over pay. The gaps in our justice system have become painstakingly clear in recent years through the news coverage of this strike and, in recent years, by various mainstream books detailing the reality of the issues we face – including those published by The Secret Barrister.
However, these gaps have been in existence for a long time - and for those living in legal aid deserts, they can be near impossible to cross.
Legal aid deserts overall map
By combining data across all three branches of the law with the data from local authorities, we were able to pinpoint the following overall legal aid deserts.
Overall legal aid deserts in the UK:
1) North Norfolk
2) Derbyshire Dales
3) Isles of Scilly
4) Ribble Valley
5) East Cambridgeshire
6) West Devon
This is useful at highlighting the areas with the highest and lowest access to legal aid across all three areas of the law. The local authority areas with low or no access to legal aid across housing, family and crime hint at an overwhelmingly low access to legal aid. As noted above, we appreciate that the three areas we have studied – family, housing and crime – are not the only areas of importance. However, we are confident that this data can serve as an accurate proxy from which to make assumptions across broader legal aid provision.
Working towards a better legal aid system
As with all major challenges facing our society, legal aid is a complex and heavily-debated issue, with layers of intricacies that need to be taken into consideration. Identifying an appropriate solution, therefore, is no small feat.
However, what is certain is that legal aid has been consistently cut for some time, to the point where very few people in very few types of cases now qualify as being able to receive it, says LexisNexis' Director of Global Legal, James Harper. One non-profit that takes on hundreds of cases every year is the Free Representation Unit (FRU) - although its CEO, David Abbott, says there are tens of thousands of people who still can't access justice.
"This work by LexisNexis is an important contribution to an objective description of the scale of unmet legal need in England and Wales. Each day FRU receives calls from these and other areas where there is no local source of legal help and we can't help."
But early legal advice can not only reduce personal stress, it actually saves the economy money, says Abbott.
"The lack of access to early legal advice is demonstrated when the FRU represents clients in legal hearings. Litigants in person make incorrect applications whilst other legitimate claims have been missed. This slows down the court process and prevents clients from accessing justice."
According to a report by the World Bank Group, every £1 invested in legal aid will give you a greater return. For instance, housing advice has the potential to save the state £2.34, while debt advice can save £2.98, employment advice can save £7.13, and social welfare entitlements can save £8.80.
One of the biggest challenges facing the legal aid system is money, says Rebecca Wilkinson, CEO of solicitor pro bono charity LawWorks. However, Wilkinson was quick to point out that legal aid requires a high-volume of administrative work, which easily eats up funding. It's for this reason that LawWorks has delivered a number of projects designed to reduce the administrative burden placed on legal aid by providing support, says Wilkinson.
Besides better funding for the legal aid system, another way to provide additional ad-hoc support is through pro-bono work. Harper believes lawyers have a duty to use their rare set of skills to make a difference for people that would have no other ability to access those skills.
Wilkinson says she's seen a growing awareness in the legal community of the impact pro bono work can have. Harper reflects that this can only be part of the solution, however.
“The answer cannot sit just with lawyers giving up time pro bono – pro bono cannot be a replacement for a properly funded legal aid system. It might be a start but, in order for our economy to flourish, for our society to prosper, and for the Rule of Law to be protected, respected and advanced, far more needs to be done. We need to address the systemic challenges which means access to justice is often denied to people across the country, almost always at the darkest moment of their lives”.