‘Vulnerable cannot get justice’ due to court axe

Wakefield Magistrates Court.
Wakefield Magistrates Court.

Court closures and cuts to legal aid mean the most vulnerable people in society cannot get justice - according to the body which represents solicitors in England and Wales.

The Law Society has warned that the disabled, people on low incomes and those living in rural areas will be worst hit by a programme of court closures by the government.

Courts in Wakefield and Calderdale held their last hearings this week.

Cases heard in Wakefield will be transferred to Leeds after the city’s magistrates’ court closed. Calderdale’s magistrates’ and county courts will also close on September 30 and cases will move to Bradford Combined Court.

Pontefract and Dewsbury magistrates’ courts have already been shut down.

The government said the closure of dozens of courts around the country would save £500m because many were under-used.

But Law Society president Robert Bourns said: “We are hugely disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with the closure of courts in West Yorkshire, along with so many other courthouses across England and Wales.

“Combined with increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the closures are making it more difficult for a significant number of people to get to court, disproportionately affecting people with disabilities, lower income families and those living in rural areas, so deepening inequalities in the justice system.”

The Law Society has also warned that people are unable to get help with housing problems after the government cut the legal aid budget in 2013.

Asylum seekers, the disabled and domestic violence victims were among those left without support when facing eviction or living in sub-standard homes after parts of the country became “legal aid deserts”.

Latest figures show that Wakefield has just one law firm offering specialist housing advice.

Kirklees has two housing advice providers and Calderdale also has just one.

Leeds had four of the providers for its whole population, according to the Law Society. Chief executive Catherine Dixon said: “Advice on housing is vital for people who are facing eviction, the homeless and those renting a property in serious disrepair.

“People who require legal aid advice for housing issues often need it urgently.

“Families are unable to access justice because they cannot afford to travel to see the one provider in their area who may be located long distances from where they live.

“Almost one third of legal aid areas in England and Wales have one, and in some cases, zero housing providers, including large, rural areas such as Cornwall, Somerset and Central Wales.”

The Law Society said families were having to join waiting lists for advice because law firms were swamped with housing enquiries.

In places with just one housing advice provider, solicitors was often unable to help tenants because they had been acting for the landlord on another matter.

The government claimed voluntary organisations and charities would provide free services after the legal aid budget was cut in 2013.

But Ministry of Justice figures show that in 2005, there were 3,226 centres offering not for profit advice, falling to 1,462 in 2015, a decline of 50 per cent.

The Law Society is calling for a government review of legal aid availability and urgent action in places with no providers.