The publication, last week, of the Law Society’s interactive map of legal aid provision for housing advice provides a stark illustration of how little free legal advice is now available to people facing a serious problem with their housing. It graphically illustrates the problem of advice deserts that Shelter sees every day.
Far too few people are getting the access to justice that they are entitled to and that can help them stay in their homes. And it is getting worse. In the last quarter of 2015/16, 17 per cent fewer people got Legal Aid help for a housing problem than in the same quarter the previous year.
Shelter has always argued that prevention is better than cure. Giving households access to advice and representation before their problem becomes a crisis – before their debt, welfare benefits or disrepair issue spirals into eviction or homelessness – is better, quicker and cheaper for the family and the state alike. But the 2012 reforms to Legal Aid (LASPO) have driven a coach and horses through this publicly-funded advice and turned it into an increasingly crisis-driven approach. With many of these issues now out of scope, people are left to fall through the net.
But Legal Aid is still available for serious cases of disrepair, possession proceedings and homelessness so why is the number of people getting advice continuing to fall?
If the Government decides to take an area of law out of scope for Legal Aid (as it has done with most debt, welfare benefit and disrepair cases, for example), then people with those particular problems will no longer get help. That much is clear. But this is compounded by the impact of other changes to the administration of Legal Aid. The increased cost and bureaucracy, coupled with the reduction in Legal Aid rates paid to solicitors doing the work, make it difficult – if not impossible – to make a high street legal aid practice pay for itself.
Reductions in Legal Aid funding have contributed to the closure of nine Shelter services, along with many law centres and local Citizens Advice offices. Many advice services that have survived do so with much reduced capacity. All of which means that even people who are still entitled to Legal Aid find it difficult to find someone to provide the service they need, as illustrated so clearly by last week’s heat map.
Heat map reveals large gaps in free, face to face, legal advice
Using the Legal Aid Agency’s data, the Law Society’s map reveals that almost one-third of Legal Aid areas have just one – and in some areas no – law firms who provide specialist housing advice through Legal Aid. The shortage in Legal Aid advice for housing means that people on low incomes facing eviction and homelessness are struggling to get the local face to face advice they desperately need and are entitled to by law.
We share the Law Society’s concerns that having just one provider in a large geographical area can have serious consequences for families facing a housing crisis:
- Families on low incomes cannot travel large distances to see the one provider located miles away from where they live, leaving them unable to access essential legal advice.
- One firm in a large area may not have capacity to provide advice to all those who need it. People requiring legal aid advice for housing issues often need advice urgently and cannot go onto a waiting list.
- Just one housing legal aid provider in an area can result in a conflict of interest because one law firm cannot represent both the landlord and their tenant.
Access to free legal advice, via Legal Aid, is a vital tool to help people prevent and resolve their housing issues, enforce their rights to housing, housing benefits and a decent service from landlords, and get support so that a crisis does not become a disaster. Right now too few people can do that.
We urge the new Ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice to urgently commission an independent review of post-LASPO Civil Legal Aid, to really get under the skin of Legal Aid and understand the range of impacts and wider costs of their reforms.