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“Legal services will cease to exist in rural Wales”

“Legal services will cease to exist in rural Wales”

Legal services will cease to exist in rural Wales if current trends continue, says the Low Commission.

The Low Commission was established by the legal education charity Legal Action Group in 2012 in the wake of the legal aid cuts to develop a strategy for access to advice and legal support in social welfare law in England and Wales. For the purposes of its inquiry, the Low Commission considers social welfare law to include asylum; benefits; community care; debt; education (including special educational needs); employment; housing; and immigration. The Commission is chaired by the cross-bench peer and disability rights campaigner Lord Colin Low, while their work has been funded by a number of trusts, foundations and City law firms.The aim of the Commission is to develop a strategy for the future provision of Social Welfare Law services. Changes to the scope of legal aid as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, combined with other reductions in central and local government funding due to the period of austerity, are threatening the provision of these services.

These cuts come at a time when advice agencies are seeing an increase in demand due to a combination of welfare reform, other austerity measures and the financial downturn.

Ahead of the Welsh Assembly elections the Commission is launching a Manifesto for Advice in Wales. “We hope to build on the progress made in Wales in establishing the National Advice Network, an initiative we strongly lobbied for in our first report,” it says.

“The concept of a national network is at the heart of the Commission’s strategy for how advice services should be managed, co-ordinated and organised to maximise capacity in an era of reduced public funding,” it says. “In establishing the network, the Welsh government has proven that our approach works. The function of the network is to provide overall strategic leadership and co-ordination for the advice sector in Wales, to get a better picture of need and gaps in provision, to spread good practice, learning and quality standards, and to embed partnership working.”

In its Manifesto the Commission warns that legal services will cease to exist in rural Wales if current trends continue. “Currently, there is a population of rural solicitors ageing over time without new blood to replenish firms for the future,” the commission says. “This decline is not due to the lack of demand for legal services; reasons range from regulatory disincentives to lack of management capacity to grow legal businesses.”

Law firms, it says, play an important role in relation to land management, livestock ownership, planning issues, property in family breakdowns and wills.

The commission proposes creating enhanced capacity at the ‘second tier’, which would consist of frontline advisers, agencies and firms providing online and telephone access to expertise on Welsh legal matters “to help frontline groups to do their jobs.”

The commission urges Welsh ministers to negotiate with the Ministry of Justice for a share of the legal aid budget as a precondition of any further devolution of executive or legislative competence in areas of criminal, civil and family law, or evolution of distinct legal and judicial structures.

It also proposes that the Welsh government, working the National Advice Network, should establish a single ‘clearing house’ process for all public funding programmes involving advice services.

“There are also concerns in a fragmented and highly pressured funding environment that only larger organisations with professional fundraising operations will thrive, rather than promoting a diverse partnership or providers each playing to their strengths, reaching into communities or helping those with particular needs,” it says.

This post was written by:

- who has written 8 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.


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