Half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice services in England and Wales have closed over the past six years, according to government figures.
The scale of the reduction, caused by deep cuts to both legal aid and local authority funding, is revealed in figures obtained through parliamentary questions.
In 2013-14 there were 94 local areas with law centres or agencies offering free legal services, the Ministry of Justice has confirmed. By this year, 2019-20, the number had fallen to just 47.
The figures were given in answer to questions by Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary. They also reveal that, between 2010-11 and 2018-19, MoJ funding for law centres through legal aid contracts dropped from £12.1m to £7.1m.
The impact was caused by a double blow because removal of legal aid eligibility for many types of cases coincided with a financial crisis among local authorities, which have been forced to withdraw support for local law centres.
Burgon, the Leeds East MP, said: “Deliberately undermining law centres in this way is yet another indictment of the Tories’ shameful record on justice.
“The weakening of law centres and legal aid is part of the same austerity agenda that has inflicted such damage on working-class communities. These cuts leave people without the legal support they need to fight back against their services being slashed and their rights being trampled on. That’s not a by-product, but the actual aim of cruel Tory policies that restrict access to justice.”
Burgon, who was visiting a law centre in his constituency as part of a campaign by the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, added: “Labour is committed to investing in law centres so that communities can once again defend their hard-won rights and take on the dodgy landlords, unscrupulous bosses and other exploitative people in positions of power that benefit from the hollowing out of our legal aid system.”
The party said it would build more law centres if it won the next election.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, warned that several more law centres were in a “precarious” state and likely to close soon. She said there were about 40 independent law centres surviving in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with at least 11 having closed since the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act sliced about £950m off the annual legal aid budget.
Bishop said: “A lot of smaller aid agencies and Citizens Advice bureaux have withdrawn from providing legal services. There’s been a real shrinkage.
“We are anticipating that a couple of other law centres may close. Local authorities have been cut massively and they have withdrawn funding from the sector. People cannot get access to legal help and demand continues to grow.
“We have 1.5 million people living in destitution. Law centres say they have not seen it so bad in terms of people’s situations after nine years of austerity.”
The MoJ provided transitional funding for law centres following the Laspo cuts. Its figures record that the number of advice services increased in 2013 but then reduced significantly thereafter.
In his written answer, the justice minister Paul Maynard said the MoJ was investing up to £5m to “deliver innovative services … offering support to people with social welfare problems like housing, including an expansion of early legal advice to determine the most effective solutions”.
The Law Centres Network was one of the charities supported by the Guardian in its Christmas appeal last year. Earlier this year the Guardian revealed that more than half of all magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed since 2010.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Every person should have access to legal advice when they need it – that’s why the Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review and takes urgent actions whenever it has concerns.
“We spent £1.6bn on legal aid last year and in addition to the Civil Legal Advice telephone service, we are investing £5m in innovative technologies to help people access legal support wherever they are.”
The latest figures, the department cautioned, may reflect consolidation where law centres may have closed offices but continue to deal with large volumes of legal aid work.