Community care legal aid “could disappear altogether” as a specialism as advice deserts expand, the Law Society has warned.
The society said statistics from the Legal Aid Agency showed that 79% of local authorities now have no publicly funded service for people wanting to challenge council community care decisions.
“The combined knock-on of shrinking local authority budgets and an advice sector decimated by legal aid cuts mean the demand for advice in community care law far outstrips supply,” Simon Davis, president of the Law Society, said.
“Our members tell us all too often they are having to make the heart-breaking decision to turn away people because they simply do not have the capacity to take cases on.
“Fewer and fewer solicitors are choosing to go into this area of work that requires in-depth knowledge of the welfare sector, sophisticated understanding of the law and highly developed interpersonal skills.
“If the government does not wake up to the impending catastrophe, I fear this specialism could disappear altogether, leaving society greatly diminished and disempowered.”
The society has produced an interactive map to highlight the vanishing number of community care legal aid providers. A similar map was produced last year for housing law providers.
The society has calculated that over 7.5 million people aged 65 or over live in a local authority area without a single legal aid provider.
The worst-hit regions are the east of England, with 89% of the population living in a local authority area with no community care legal aid provider, and the South East, with 80.9%. The East Midlands comes a close third with 80.3%.
The best-served region is London, with only 21.5% living in a local authority area with no provider. In all the other regions of England and Wales the figure is over 50%.
The society said civil legal aid rates had not gone up since 1994, amounting to a reduction of 49%, and fees were cut by a further 10% in 2011.
Mr Davis added: “Anyone trying to resolve a care issue is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently and be unable to travel long distances to get that tailored advice.
“The government must make urgent changes so everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can get the advice they need when they so desperately need it. Legal rights are meaningless if people cannot enforce them.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “There are enough solicitors and barristers for all legal aid-funded cases across England and Wales, with people able to access help from nearby providers or on the telephone if they cannot travel.
“It is misleading to compare legal aid services to local authority areas as that is not how provision is set and, in fact, there are more offices offering legal aid services now than under the previous contracts.
“The Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review to ensure that every person has access to legal advice when they need it.”