Can anyone help?

Many housing advisers and local politicians will be familiar with the scenario.  A homeless family arrive with their suitcases on a Friday afternoon.  They’ve been evicted from their home and, bewildered children in tow, have nowhere to go.

Families in this situation are usually entitled to some sort of assistance from the local authority.  But, sometimes they’ve been told that no further help is available.  It’s at this point that they often resort to their local councillor or MP, who in turn refer them to Shelter.  With the help of Legal Aid, we can challenge unlawful decisions and get a roof over their head.

Now, a Government announcement on further changes to Legal Aid threatens to seriously undermine our ability to help families in this situation.

Despite vigorous opposition from the sector, the Government has decided to press ahead with restricting Legal Aid for the judicial review of decisions made by public bodies, including local housing authorities, which have a duty to assist homeless households.

Some welcome concessions to the original proposals have been made.  But despite these, it will still be far more difficult and risky for Shelter and other organisations to take on a case in the hope of getting a speedy resolution for the family.

In all cases of this nature, we try not to resort to judicial review.  Most homeless families don’t want their case being dragged through the High Court; neither do the local authority – and neither do we.  It’s far better if we can avoid court by negotiating with the local authority.  Preparation and negotiation takes up a great deal of a Shelter lawyer’s time.  With the support of Legal Aid to prepare for the case, we often negotiate a satisfactory outcome before proceedings are issued.

Last month, for example, we helped Lauren and her two young children, homeless after escaping severe domestic violence, who the council had flatly refused to assist until we threatened proceedings.

The new changes will also mean that, even if we get a mutually agreeable outcome between proceedings being issued and the case coming to court, there is no guarantee that the family will be entitled to Legal Aid to cover the costs.  This will depend on the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency.  This means that Shelter would be taking on a financial risk, and face further bureaucratic hurdles just to cover our costs, every time we take on the case of a homeless family.

This, in turn, weakens our position in negotiating an outcome.  Knowing the financial risk we are taking in acting on a family’s behalf, local authorities may be less likely to reconsider unlawful decisions, because they know we’re less able to mount a judicial review. This is key: in our daily experience, the threat of judicial review in itself is often enough to bring about a change of mind, providing a family with temporary accommodation.

We urge MPs and Ministers to consider the unintended impact these changes will have on homeless families.  We encounter cases on a daily basis in which housing and social services have failed to properly assess the needs of homeless families, leaving them in miserable and dangerous situations.  We know families who have slept rough because they have been refused the statutory assistance to which they are entitled.

It’s clear to us that the cases we see are the tip of the iceberg, and that the problem is now increasingly acute.  Many, if not most, homeless people don’t have access to a solicitor with a Legal Aid housing contract who can negotiate with a local authority on their behalf – backed-up by the threat of judicial review. If the changes go ahead it may become impossible for homeless people to find solicitors to help them. 

Who will they then turn to for help?