Families across large parts of England and Wales are denied state-funded advice on housing issues because of ‘legal aid deserts’ which have emerged due to drastic government cuts in spending, the Law Society of England and Wales said, as it launched a new interactive map highlighting the problem.
Almost one third of legal aid areas have just one and – in some cases – no solicitors who specialise in housing and whose advice is available through legal aid.
Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said:
‘Advice on housing is vital for people who are facing eviction, the homeless and those renting a property in serious disrepair. Early legal advice on housing matters can make the difference between a family being made homeless or not.
‘People who require legal aid advice for housing issues often need it urgently. Families are unable to access justice because they cannot afford to travel to see the one provider in their area who may be located long distances from where they live. Almost one third of legal aid areas in England and Wales have one, and in some cases, zero housing providers, including large, rural areas, such as Cornwall, Somerset and Central Wales.’
Whole geographical areas with just one housing legal aid provider can result in a number of problems:
- Families on low incomes cannot afford to travel to see the one provider located miles from where they live. This means they are unable to seek essential legal advice, even in the most extreme cases.
- 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 a tenant and their landlord.
- A conflict can also arise if the firm has been acting for the landlord on another issue, such as a family matter. This would mean the firm would not be able to act for the tenant.
The Law Society has produced an interactive ‘legal aid deserts heat map‘ to draw attention to the extent of the crisis in the provision of legal aid advice for housing issues.
Catherine Dixon added:
‘The impact of homelessness on individuals can be huge – but it also hits the public purse. And, just as legal aid advice deserts have opened up, the demand for housing advice has escalated.
‘There is a serious risk the people that parliament insisted should be able to access legal help will be unable to get the advice and representation they need. The government needs to urgently commission an independent review into the sustainability of the civil legal aid system.’
The Law Society believes the review should also look at legal aid contracting arrangements. The government should also seek to commission a second provider in areas that currently only have one and take urgent steps where zero advisers are available.
The geographical representation of recent government data highlights the significant reduction of housing legal aid services.
The heat map was compiled from data provided by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) in March 2016. Coverage of legal aid provision will vary from time to time.
Three areas – Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk – have no housing provider at all. This means that people on low incomes facing homelessness and eviction are unable to get the local face-to-face advice they desperately need and are entitled to by law.
The situation in housing is continuing to decline. The cuts to legal aid were made in April 2013.
Legal aid for housing is now only available for specific types of cases involving issues such as eviction, homelessness, harassment and disrepair. The lack of provision means there is a serious risk the people that parliament insisted should be able to access legal help will be unable to get the advice and representation they need.
A new report from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has expressed concern about the significant rise in homelessness affecting single persons, families with children, victims of domestic violence, persons with disabilities and asylum-seekers in England.
One of the government’s main arguments justifying the removal of legal aid was that the third sector would provide the services needed for those that fell out of legal aid provision.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) produced an analysis of not-for-profit (NfP) provision throughout the UK that demonstrates a decrease in NfP advice providers from 3,226 centres in 2005 to 1,462 centres in 2014/15. The numbers have declined by over 50 per cent in 10 years.
The Law Society is conducting a full analysis of the impact of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) to be published later in the year.
The Law Society of England and Wales is the independent professional body, established for solicitors in 1825, that works globally to support and represent its members, promoting the highest professional standards and the rule of law.