Millions could be deprived of access to justice as financial and social issues born out of the Covid-19 pandemic highlight a growing gap in legal aid funding, a national legal charity has warned.
A report by the Law Centres Network finds that a large proportion of the public will be left without “vital” assistance to protect their home, job or benefits during the crisis without also pushing themselves and their families into poverty, because they fall into what is known as the “justice gap”.
The warning comes as new figures show that nearly 650,000 people have already lost their jobs during the pandemic, while unfair dismissal and domestic violence are now more common and a surge in homelessness is expected when evictions start again in August – all of which are likely to lead to a surge in people needing legal protection.
In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, calls to law centres for help on key issues such as employment rights have spiked – rising by as much as fivefold between March and June, with many of the new clients being people who have become impoverished during the pandemic.
In one case, a pregnant healthcare worker in south London on an agency contract through NHS Professionals was left without work or pay for eight weeks as the coronavirus pandemic hit, in what South West London Law Centre said was a breach of UK employment law.
The woman said: “I want to be helping them fight the coronavirus in hospital, but I can’t risk being there. Another colleague who was pregnant saw her child die, so I can’t risk myself and my baby.
“I’m really struggling, but I don’t have a choice. That’s why I called the law centre to see if they could help me. Money is my problem now, so when the law centre said they could get me a solicitor but I wouldn’t have to pay for it, I was so relieved.”
The term “justice gap” relates to a significant number of people who would not be able to afford to pay for legal assistance privately, but who would also not be able to be eligible for legal aid, either because they are not poor enough to qualify or because they cannot afford the contribution required. The Law Centres Network says this leaves them with the “impossible choice” of choosing between having no legal representation or living in poverty.
Data collated by the charity shows that millions of working people in Britain could now face this choice if they require legal assistance for issues that have arisen from the pandemic, such as employment dismissal, housing evictions or family or marriage disputes.
It is estimated that 94 per cent of working single parents fall into the justice gap. A working couple with three young children would need annual household earnings of over £100,000 to afford legal protection without pushing their family into poverty and giving up some basics, according to the Law Centres Network.
The charity says this is particularly concerning at a time when more people are facing financial and social instability due to the economic aftershock of Covid-19, with job losses expected to increase once the furlough scheme nears its end and tenancy disputes expected to increase when evictions resume in late August.
Director of the Law Centres Network Julie Bishop said: “Our data shows a funding sinkhole: many working families are not covered by legal aid and do not know it. If they are personally affected by the pandemic’s economic impact, they are unlikely to afford legal fees for protecting their home and loved ones.
“As the country begins recovering from the pandemic, we must ‘build back better’ and create long-term sustainable funding that can meet the changing needs of the communities we serve.”
Shadow legal aid minister Karl Turner warned that the legal aid system was “on the brink”, adding: “With the government changing the threshold on who can qualify for legal aid, we now see people falling into poverty to cover legal costs. The choice between eating, heating and proper legal representation is one no one should ever have to make.”
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society of England and Wales, said he supported the report’s findings, adding: “If people cannot enforce their rights, then effectively these rights do not exist.
“Law centres offer an important lifeline in meeting social welfare law need and firms’ support would be well deserved. This support would also help law centres diversify their funding – leaving them less vulnerable to any government cuts down the line.
“However, the scale of legal need is too vast for law centres to bear alone. It will also be vital to ensure that private practice and legal aid firms working in these areas are fully supported to continue providing these much-needed services.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We’ve allocated millions in extra funding for law centres and legal advice charities to support those most in need during the pandemic, including victims of domestic abuse.
“We are separately carrying out a review of the legal aid means tests which will report in spring 2021.”