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House of Commons Hansard
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Legal Advice Deserts
09 July 2019
Volume 663
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7. What steps his Department has taken to tackle legal advice deserts. [911803]

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After the latest Legal Aid Agency civil tender, the number of offices providing legal aid services has increased by 7% in the areas of housing and debt. The Legal Aid Agency reviews the access to services on a regular basis and takes any necessary action to maintain access to those services.

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As the east of England is the region with the highest percentage of population with no providers of housing legal aid, and as Ipswich is in the centre of the housing legal aid desert that covers the whole of Suffolk and most of north Essex, will the Minister agree to meet me and the director of the Suffolk Law Centre to discuss what can be done to address this housing legal aid desert?

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I anticipated that the hon. Gentleman might ask about his local situation. Although a contract was awarded in Ipswich in the last tender, we are waiting for the provider to advise us that it has managed to recruit staff to provide advice. We are aware that this will be restricting access, and we will shortly consider re-tendering the service. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this further.

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Public confidence in the legal aid system is often determined by high-profile cases such as the inquests into the Manchester bombing and the London Bridge attacks, in which the taxpayer funded the legal fees of the public authorities and, in the case of London Bridge, the widow of one of the terrorists, but not the victims of the attack. Many people feel instinctively that this is not right, so what work is the Minister doing to build confidence in the justice of the current system so that the victims of terror do not face their own legal advice desert?

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I certainly hear what my hon. Friend says. Our thoughts will always be with those who have lost loved ones in any terror attack. Our review of legal aid shows that bereaved families do not need specific legal representation at the vast majority of inquests. It is important to ensure that these inquests remain inquisitorial, but what is known as equality of arms has to be a key consideration, as we know from Dame Elish Angiolini’s report. I am therefore working closely with my officials to look at what more can be done to help those families who are in an inquest situation.

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This month marks 70 years since the post-war Labour Government introduced the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. Tory cuts have decimated access in recent years, and those cuts alone mean 90,000 families denied legal aid for benefits challenges—a move that the United Nations criticised—and 50,000 families denied housing legal aid, letting rogue landlords off the hook, as well as tens of thousands left facing the “hostile environment” without legal support. Labour has committed to restoring legal aid for all family law, for housing, for benefits appeals, for judicial review preparation, for inquests and for real action on immigration cases. Will the Minister mark the 70th anniversary of legal aid by committing to return any of those?

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As we survey the decaying embers of a dying regime reaching its inevitable conclusion, it is good to see the shadow Secretary of State showing that he is waving and not drowning, as he desperately tries to draw attention to the fact he is full of vim and vigour. As he will know, we are currently reviewing legal aid thresholds and exceptional case funding. We are bringing special guardianship orders back within the scope of legal aid, and we are looking at legal support action plans.

I am unclear, the more I listen to Labour Front Benchers, about why they assume that the only way to provide legal support is to fund it through legal aid. We will shortly have a question on law centres and, for me, there have to be a number of ways to provide legal support. [Interruption.] “And for us,” I hear the hon. Gentleman say from a sedentary position, and I am pleased to hear that.