SOLICITOR Richard Hazell put it simply when he said: “The government has killed off legal aid more or less completely, except for small groups and mavericks like ours who are really keen on the work we do.”

The senior solicitor at the Wiltshire Law Centre spoke of the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It has brought in a £950m a year reduction in funding for legal aid since April 2013.

“We lost all our funding with regards to welfare benefits, debt, employment and a lot of housing law advice,” said Richard, who specialises in housing law and is a founding member of the Civil Law Centre 38 years ago.

“What’s left is homelessness, disrepair and possession claims and application for eviction by the bailiffs and anti-social behaviour,” he said.

The registered charity in Swindon’s Sanford Street also does work for the housing association GreenSquare Group, which funds this itself. Otherwise the centre is funded 95 per cent by the Legal Aid Agency.

Individuals with queries in the areas no longer covered by legal aid are referred to Citizen’s Advice instead.

“Or we try to give them basic advice,” said Richard.

He added: “The cuts have created a huge unmet legal need which we cannot hope to meet.

“It means we frequently get people ringing up wanting advice about access to children or fairly simple family law matters which would normally have come under the legal aid system which they now can’t get help with. So then they have to try and solve these things on their own.

“Judges are driven round the bend by having to deal with litigants in person, some of whom are very unreasonable, and they have unrealistic expectations about what the law can achieve for them.

“Due to the lack of legal aid, their expectations are not mediated through using a solicitor to filter their perceptions of the situation,” he said.

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The centre helps an estimated 2,500 people every year in civil law matters, mainly through telephone enquiries.

It works on cases and represent clients in the courts, assisting 551 people between April 2017 and March 2018.

Housing issues usually involving litigation accounted for 91 per cent of its work.

“We’re the only people who do housing law between Slough one end of the M4 and Chippenham at the other,” Richard said.

“There’s nobody in Reading or Newbury. There’s only us in Swindon, Chippenham have a firm of solicitors called Shearer & Co and Bristol there are various agencies and law centre.”

Since 2013 the centre’s income and number staff has reduced by half.

“Our income now is probably about £120,000 and used to be about £250,000,” said Richard.

Back in February the government promised to invest £6.5m to improve early advice for social welfare claimants.

“I’ve seen no tangible money coming our way,” said Richard.

“They may have opened up a call centre to do certain advice on the phone but in practice our clients don’t want a phone number that’s obscure and no one has ever heard of. They want a local service on their doorstep.”

Richard said increasing the legal aid rates is what is needed to radically improve the situation.

“Currently we’re paid at £59.40 an hour for legal aid work. Solicitors in private practice would probably laugh at such figures as they expect to earn £150 - £200 an hour to make their practices commercially viable.”

Until the recent appointment of Ashley Brown, the Wiltshire Law Centre faced an uncertain future having struggled to recruit a new lawyer to take over from Richard when he decides to retire.

“Being able to have more solicitors doing the work would make a big difference,” said Richard.

“The government would have to increase the pay rate to attract people into the work. That’s why people have deserted social welfare law in droves.”

He added: “The government has no commitment to funding early advice services which is why they are closing up and down the country. Justice secretary Robert Buckland, who ironically is our MP, won’t fund lawyers to give early advice before people go to court.”

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Richard emphasised such early free legal advice is beneficial to the whole of society by saving the state money evicting people or taking children into care because parents can’t cope with debts.

“That can be saved if the family is encouraged to go and get legal advice and if there are agents around who can do that work,” he said. “It enables people to plan their legal affairs better and skilled advisers can negotiate the resolution of such welfare disputes. The demand for our services is always going to be there. The question is whether the government will fund it,” said Richard.