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Family legal aid lawyers are having to turn away families seeking legal help because they cannot take on new clients as they have used up their annual quota of cases.
With nearly five months to run before the current lagal aid contracts expire, many family lawyers are worried that they will go out of business if they cannot take on new cases in that time. Resolution, the association of family solicitors, is criticising the Legal Services Commission for not increasing the quota of case numbers as they have done in the past.
Karen Mackay, Chief Executive of Resolution, said: "In previous years family legal aid firms have been able to apply for a review of the number of new cases they are permitted to take on and requests for additional cases have largely been met. Our members have developed their business plans and staffing requirements in the very reasonable expectation that this would remain the case.
"Legal aid firms operate on very slim margins and such sudden changes to the flow of funds and work threaten the existence of these practices."
Resolution has written to Lord Bach, Minister for Legal Aid to ask for an urgent meeting so that this matter can be handled appropriately and with sufficient speed to protect the family legal aid network. The number of family legal aid practices has already fallen dramatically from 4,500 in 2000 to under 2,700 in 2008.
"Despite the fact that we have been working side by side with the LSC on behalf of our members to help shape the future of family legal aid, we have had no warning that they planned to make this change," Ms Mackay added.
The LSC has begun reallocating surplus case quotas from firms that are unlikely to use them.
An LSC spokesman said: "Providers of face-to-face services have already reported 20,000 more matters started between April-August 2009 than over the same period last year. This year, we expect to deliver 1.1 million acts of civil assistance in total, more than ever before. That is almost double the 595,000 acts in 2004-5.
"The LSC has undertaken an exercise to remove any surplus new matter starts from providers who are unlikely to use their current allocation. Once this is completed the LSC will be better able to understand if they can afford to reallocate these matters to areas where demand is highest.
"Until the exercise is complete, the LSC will continue to consider individual requests for modest increases from providers who are at imminent risk of exceeding their contracted amount."