The number of specialist contracts held by legal aid practices fell by around a third between 2000 and 2006, it has emerged.
The figures ? contained in a written parliamentary answer from Department for Constitutional Affairs minister Vera Baird ? showed that the number of family law contracts dropped from 4,423 in 2000 to 2,887 in 2006.
The story was repeated across all civil categories. Housing law contracts plummeted from 840 to 587; welfare benefits from 673 to 459; debt from 618 to 402; immigration from 483 to 367; and personal injury from 2,333 to 960. The number of criminal defence contracts also fell from 3,500 in 2000 to 2,608 in 2006.
Richard Miller, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), said the figures came as no surprise. ?We have been warning the government that publicly funded advice is becoming non-existent in some areas and scarce everywhere.?
Practitioners, he added, were closing more matters than they were opening. ?This is supported by the statistics. The total value of claims for legally aided work for 2006/07 is forecast to be ?160 million. That is ?30 million less than 2005/06.?
However, Ms Baird also revealed that the number of civil acts of assistance for 2005/06 totalled 708,510, which ? despite the fall in the number of contracts ? was the highest since 2000.
Roy Morgan, principal of Cardiff law firm Morgans and chairman of the LAPG, praised the role that Community Legal Service (CLS) Direct played in achieving this.
?But CLS Direct is masking the problem of lack of availability of legal advice,? he added. ?Very often, it can give a one-off piece of advice ? and that?s the end of it. But when a case needs referring onwards, too often there?s nobody out there to help.?
Crispin Passmore, director of the Community Legal Service at the Legal Services Commission, said: ?The improved access to early advice that comes from CLS Direct has been important in raising the number of acts of advice.
?But solicitor firms and not-for-profit agencies have [also] both taken on more work in the last two years ? delivering an increase in face-to-face advice during 2005/06 with 634,885 cases started, compared with 560,031 cases in 2004/05.?