Elderly people being pressured to sell their homes to fund long-term nursing care should take expert legal advice as soon as possible, a Warwickshire solicitor has warned.

Martin Green, a partner at law firm Lodders, said: "In theory, the NHS prom-ises cradle to grave free healthcare, but not only is this frequently not the case, but the way the NHS eligibility criteria for free long-term healthcare is applied can vary from health trust to health trust," he said.

"A recent Panorama programme suggested that thousands of people had unlawfully been forced to sell their homes.

"It also pointed out that since an alteration in how the policy is applied, brought in by the Labour Government, many have had a legal charge put on their house which means that payment is deferred but that money will be taken from the eventual sale of the house."

Lodders has one of the largest community care legal teams in the region.

Expert Sarah Magness said: "If your needs are primarily of health then the NHS should pay for all of your care.

"This decision was confirmed in a Court of Appeal Judgment in 1999 involving a tetraplegic lady, Pamela Coughlan, who challenged her health authority in Exeter and won.

"The case differentiated between the extent of 'social care' that local councils are permitted to provide, which is by law means-tested, and the free 'health care' which the NHS should provide free, whatever the location in the UK," she said.

The Court of Appeal judgement concluded that where a person's need is primarily for health care - for example, nursing - the NHS must fund the whole cost of the placement in a nursing home. This includes personal care and the cost of the accommodation.

Colleague Emma Vaqueiro said: "As admissions to nursing homes are, in the main, made to enable people to obtain a high degree of nursing, the effect of the judgement is that most, if not all placements, must arguably be funded by the NHS.

"The Coughlan case severely criticised the Department of Health's guidance issued in 1995 in relation to the NHS Responsibilities for Meeting Continuing Health Care Needs."