This is a guest blog by Gareth Owen, one of Shelter Bristol’s Managing Solicitors.
Our legal service sits at the heart of Shelter’s work to defend the right to a safe home – whether fighting an unlawful eviction, or stepping in when local authorities aren’t doing enough to support people.
We are therefore thrilled to have been awarded a grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, distributed by the Access to Justice Foundation as part of the Community Justice Fund. From our court duty schemes to specialist legal advice work, this support means we can continue helping people right across England who are at risk of losing their homes in the coming weeks and months.
Legal support is needed now more than ever
To see how important this work is, we want to shine a light on one region where Shelter’s solicitors are supporting people with nowhere else to turn: the legal advice deserts of the South West of England.
The South West of England is an area of 8,182 square miles with a population of approximately 5.3 million people. Deprivation and poverty in parts of the region is deep, entrenched and some of the worst in the country. Yet in the towns and villages of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, social service provision is non-existent or close to collapse, and the geography and population density mean that providing face-to-face services is practically and financially challenging. This leaves people with very few means to seek advice.
Within this advice desert, Shelter’s legal services in Bristol and Plymouth are an oasis of support.
To ensure as many people as possible can access the legal advice they need, we manage duty solicitor court schemes in Yeovil, Taunton, Plymouth, Torquay and Barnstaple. In the best of times, coverage of these courts proves challenging. During coronavirus, this has become even more so.
Yet, our presence is needed now more than ever. Court is often the only time we have the opportunity to meet people for whom we can make a life-changing difference. Many of our clients in this region are elderly and exceptionally vulnerable, requiring skilled practitioners who will give them time to tease out their problems and provide advice that they can understand. We are there to level the litigation playing field with large, well-funded private and social landlords.
Success stories from our legal teams
To give some insight into this work and how our grant from the Community Justice Fund will help change and save people’s lives, here are some stories from the frontline over recent months:
Max has diabetes, arthritis and Asperger’s Syndrome. Since lockdown, the local authority has tried twice to move him out of his temporary accommodation to a hostel, completely unequipped for his needs. We stopped it both times.
Rebecca, a woman with advanced MS who lacks capacity to care for herself, wasn’t being supported by social services, yet her council landlord tried to evict her. We overturned this decision.
Jean, an elderly lady who is shielding, asked for help from her local authority. In response they claimed she was intentionally homeless, leaving her with no support. Without a computer or any face-to-face contact, we used the post and telephone to work with Jean and overturn the decision.
These are just some examples of the crucial work this grant from the Community Justice Fund will allow us to continue delivering over the coming months; work which, with the ban on evictions no longer in place but the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, will become ever more important.