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Law Society hits back at justice minister over legal aid remarks

Multiple providers needed to avoid conflicts of interest, says Robert Bourns

19 January 2017

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The Law Society has criticised the government for failing to meet the demand for legal aid services, following comments made by a justice minister on the housing law crisis.

This week Sir Oliver Heald QC set out the Ministry of Justice’s timetable for a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012. The minister also said he disagreed with Chancery Lane’s claims that cuts to legal aid have created advice deserts across the country and resulted in the demand for housing law advice not being met.

Last summer, the Law Society found that almost one-third of legal aid areas have either one or zero solicitors specialising in housing law and offering advice through legal aid.

Sir Oliver said: ‘There are 134 areas of legal aid in the country and in 35 of them there is one provider and the Law Society is saying there should be two. That would undermine the current providers because they’ve taken the costs of setting up a housing team and they all do a fantastic job. I worry about sustainability.'

Responding to the minister’s comments, the Law Society’s president, Robert Bourns, said: ‘Even where legal aid is still available by law, the government’s failure to ensure proper provision of services means they are not meeting the standard they themselves have set, as our legal aid deserts campaign has highlighted.

‘Far from undermining the sustainability of existing providers, as the minister suggests, adding a second provider of housing legal advice is vital to ensure that those in need are not prevented from actually accessing legal advice.

‘Too frequently we have seen the government urgently having to procure new housing advice providers because the sole provider stopped doing this work, as happened last year in areas such as Hull, Surrey, and Cambridge.’

Bourns said multiple providers are important to avoid situations where conflicts of interest prevent people from accessing advice with a sole provider unable to act for both the landlord and the tenant.

‘Leaving a third of areas across the country in such a precarious state is not an acceptable way to provide services that the government clearly agrees should be available to all. The Law Society will continue to engage constructively with the minister and government on these issues.’

Chancery Lane did welcome the ‘long-signalled’ review of LASPO. ‘The Law Society has been calling for this review for some time so that the impact of LASPO is properly measured before further changes are introduced, particularly if those changes also reduce access to justice for vulnerable people. Reforms that are not properly evidenced create other costs for the taxpayer,’ said Bourns.

‘A lack of expert legal advice when things go wrong can lead to a range of problems, such as homelessness, family breakdowns, and health issues. With these cuts denying an estimated 600,000 people legal aid every year, there is growing evidence that LASPO is creating other, totally preventable, costs on the taxpayer well in excess of any perceived savings.’

Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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