26.11.14

View from the front: Government policies causing “slow death” of legal aid

Colin Henderson, legal aid housing lawyer.

Working in legal aid is harder than it’s ever been, so the data collected by the Bureau is no surprise to me.

It’s not because the need for this work has reduced.

There’s a public perception that legal aid isn’t available.

We are now heavily restricted to advising on urgent possession, eviction and homelessness cases. All the preventative work has been banned and we are only permitted to pick up the pieces once there is a crisis, before that we have to turn people away.

We must only advise people on benefit-level income, and those clients have to provide detailed proof of their income before we can see them. Stressed clients facing eviction just want immediate help and many don’t return with the paperwork.

Those turned away and their referring agencies are left with the impression that legal aid for housing just isn’t there any longer.

Most of our clients are vulnerable due to illness and poverty – they’re not online, not confident on the phone and need a face-to-face service.

Related story: Half of legal aid housing advice unused despite rising convictions

Finding someone to help is not easy. One in five law centres have closed since April 2013 due to the legal aid cuts. Our clients can’t afford to travel and it doesn’t take much for them to simply give up, especially in rural areas.

I cover most of Cumbria, but in Kendal and Ulverston people couldn’t access my services for over a year because the Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABs) there had closed due to other funding cuts. They have now re-opened part-time.

In Barrow-in-Furness I now see a tiny fraction of the cases I used to; instead people suffer in silence.

Before the cuts Barrow had both a Shelter office and my service. Now Shelter has no Cumbrian office and there is only one solicitor in Penrith, the Law Centre in Carlisle and my CAB left to cover the second largest county in England.

I also believe that many of the remaining housing providers have de-prioritised the work because it’s not viable.

Shelter’s accounts show that their legal services cost twice as much to run as they get back in legal aid.

The rates paid are actually lower than they were 20 years ago when I started this work.

Ten years ago the CAB’s legal aid contracts included administration costs and extra travel payments to cover Cumbria; then those were stopped.

Three years ago we got a 10% rate cut and then last year the cuts to the scope of legal aid slashed our client base. Housing lawyers only keep going by receiving occasional costs awards at normal court rates (over 3x legal aid rates) when we win claims against landlords who behave illegally.

This summer we faced a potentially fatal blow; the proposed residence test for legal aid. In practice it didn’t just affect immigrants; it excluded anyone who couldn’t produce a passport or full birth certificate at their first appointment.

A few days before implementation the Courts threw out the  new rules as totally unlawful.

The government wanted to abolish all legal aid in housing just as they did for employment, benefits advice and most family cases, but the Human Rights Act prevented them.

Instead their policies seem designed to cause us a slow death.

Related story: Legal aid housing deserts appearing as providers pull out

Colin Henderson is a housing solicitor who works in Citizens Advice bureaux across Cumbria and North Lancashire.

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