‘LEGAL AID DESERTS’ half of councils have no legal aid for housing

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Striking barristers demonstrate against legal aid cuts. 50 per cent of councils in England and Wales do not provide publicly funded legal advice for housing issues

OVER 50% of local authorities in England and Wales cannot provide publicly funded legal advice on housing issues, the Law Society warned yesterday as it revealed details of ‘legal aid deserts’ across the country.

New data published by the Society shows that over half of all local authorities in England and Wales have no provision for housing legal aid services at all.

Over a third (37%) of the population of England and Wales live in a local authority with no housing legal aid providers.

And whole counties are without any housing legal aid – Suffolk, for instance – while other areas have just one provider. In Cornwall, one law firm serves a population of over half a million spread over 1,300 square miles.

The shortage in legal aid advice for housing means that people on low incomes facing homelessness and eviction are struggling to get the local face-to-face advice they desperately need and are entitled to by law.

‘People facing homelessness or trying to challenge a rogue landlord increasingly can’t get the expert legal advice they desperately need,’ Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said.

‘More than 21 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes struggling to access the legal advice they are entitled to when they are at their most vulnerable.

‘Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently – if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county they might as well be on Mars.’

Having just one housing legal aid provider in a large area can result in a range of problems including:

  • Anyone on an income low enough to qualify for legal aid, let alone in rent arrears, is unlikely to be able to afford to travel a great distance to see a solicitor.
  • Working people, families and anyone with dependants may have serious logistical challenges if they have to travel across a county to find a provider, particularly in rural areas with patchy public transport.
  • One firm covering a large area may not have capacity to provide advice to all those who need it.
  • A single provider may have to decline clients due to 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 fees government pays for legal aid provision have not increased since 1998-99, equating to a 41% real-terms reduction.

On top of this, fees were cut by a further 10% in 2011.

Catastrophically low rates of pay are forcing legal professionals across the country to withdraw from providing legal aid as the work is not economically viable for small businesses like solicitor firms.

‘Homelessness is devastating for anyone who experiences or is at risk of it,’ Christina Blacklaws said.

‘There is no longer legal aid for early advice, meaning many people can only get help when their situation is critical.

‘The only housing issues still in scope are homelessness, harassment, eviction due to rent arrears, and disrepair that is so bad it is hazardous to occupants’ health.

‘The government must ensure everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can actually get it when they so desperately need it.

‘Legal rights are meaningless if people can’t enforce them.’

The Law Centres Network warned as long ago as last December that the legal aid market is ‘failing’ because cuts have ‘shattered’ local advice services.

‘Legal aid deserts’ appear when there are not enough local providers of legal assistance, normally because of the Legal Aid Agency’s preference of fewer, larger agencies, meaning that if those pull out of a local area there is no provision left.

At the same time, Margaret Greenwood MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, responding to the news from the Trussell Trust that a record 1.6m food bank parcels were provided to people in the past year, said:

‘The sharp rise in food bank use over the last year is shocking, and the need for emergency food parcels in one of the richest countries of the world is shameful. Nobody in our society should be forced to turn to food banks to survive.

‘Despite Ministers’ attempts to explain away food bank use, the Trussell Trust is very clear that cuts to social security and the five-week wait for Universal Credit payments are key reasons for the rise.

‘Labour will end the benefits freeze, stop the rollout of Universal Credit and ensure that our social security system supports any one of us should we need it,’ she said.

  • Criminal barristers in England and Wales are threatening to stage strike action over below minimum wage pay, and walk out of trials or refuse new work, in a pay row with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) says rates for prosecution work have not risen in 20 years, and barristers can receive as little as £46.50 for a day’s work when preparing a complex court case – this is effectively less than the minimum wage.

In a CBA survey, 95% of barristers said they would strike to change the rates.

The CPS claims it is in the process of reviewing barrister fees to make them ‘fair, affordable and sustainable’.

The government announced extra funding for criminal defence barristers’ trial fees last year after they went on strike in protest at a new system for determining their legal aid payments.

But the CBA has described the relationship between barristers and the CPS as ‘broken’, and it wants to ensure that its members who carry out publicly-funded work are ‘fairly and properly remunerated’.

‘It is unsustainable to carry on like this,’ it added.

The CPS says it understands the wish for the review to be agreed quickly but it would take ‘at least four months’.

The poll by the CBA found that 95 per cent of members would be prepared take direct action to secure better pay, with walkouts to start within weeks.

And when asked if they believe the pay for prosecuting criminal cases reflects the demands, skill and responsibility the work involves, 99.3 per cent said no.

CBA chair Chris Henley QC was quoted as saying: ‘The criminal bar has spoken with one voice. The current relationship with the CPS is broken.

‘95 per cent are prepared to walk out or refuse to take cases if the DPP (director of public prosecutions) refuses to fix it.’