In from the cold; bringing housing benefit advice back in scope

At Shelter we know better than anyone the value of expert housing advice, which frequently makes the difference between keeping a home and homelessness. Legal aid has long been a key source of funding for expert housing advice – including many of the services Shelter provides. But this funding was decimated by the now infamous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Shelter campaigned tooth and nail against LASPO. Sadly, its impacts have been nothing short of huge; ten Shelter advice services have closed since its introduction and legal help for housing has been removed from nearly 40,000 people.[1]

Now the Justice Select Committee is following up its critical 2011 report on LASPO with a series of evidence sessions for an inquiry. Yesterday’s was on housing – so what happened?

Someone who is only too familiar with the impacts of LASPO is our Principal Solicitor and Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year, John Gallagher. Having worked tirelessly for Shelter for twenty-seven years, John was best placed to give evidence on behalf of Shelter in Parliament yesterday.

John stressed that advice on housing benefit problems is no longer in scope for legal aid – which means people cannot get legal advice on these issues. The Government justified this because the issues were of “relatively minor importance”, but evidence given to the committee today by John and others showed how often that just isn’t true.

“Relatively minor” errors in a decision about someone’s housing benefit can contribute significantly to financial hardship, rent arrears, possession claims and eventual homelessness – something flagged to the Committee back in 2011.[2] As John went on to explain, benefits legislation is also vastly complicated – if a tiny piece of information is not gathered or processed correctly it can lead to the wrong decision being made. The average person – let alone a vulnerable one – can struggle to even identify such problems, let alone convince officials to reconsider their decisions.

Taking benefits advice out of scope probably doesn’t even save money. Evidence to the Committee in 2011 showed that every £1 spent on housing advice saves on average £2.34 of public money.[3] Advice under the Legal Help scheme costs the taxpayer as little at £150 – going to court costs £1,000s. For example, possession proceedings in court can often uncover errors in processing claims that can lead to back payments of benefits that reduce rent arrears and prevent homelessness. But if a client had got this advice before the possession order – let alone the rent arrears – it would have saved the court’s time, and saved the landlord and tax-payer money.

The Government also justified the reduced scope for legal aid on the grounds that the third sector would pick up the slack. However, the Committee heard the reality yesterday from each of the three respected lawyers; a cap on how many can be helped means people in need get turned away. Advice providers like Shelter have had to close services, reducing the amount of help on offer. And barristers securing adjournments from the court are finding that there is such a shortage of advice that those with unresolved benefit claims are unable to resolve their benefit problems in time for the next hearing, causing more delay and costing the courts more money.

The reality of LASPO has been less preventative help, less funding for organisations advising vulnerable people, and less access to justice for those in genuine need. The Government should recognise that the restrictions aren’t saving money, and that vulnerable people are being denied access to justice; it is time to reinstate housing benefit advice under legal aid as soon as possible.