'Legal aid deserts' risk increasing homelessness
Law Society calls for independent review into civil legal aid structure
Government cuts resulting in 'legal aid deserts' across large parts of England and Wales are denying families access to housing advice and risk increasing homelessness, new statistics have revealed.
The Law Society has 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.
In the first quarter of 2016, the total housing workload fell by 17 per cent compared to the same quarter last year. The decrease coincided with an increase in statutory homelessness of 9 per cent to 14,780 households over the same period.
Catherine Dixon, the Law Society's chief executive, said the government should take urgent action: '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.'
Chancery Lane added that any government 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,' read a statement.
An interactive map published by the body shows that large parts of Wales, the East Midlands, the South West, Shropshire, Ipswich, and South London are among the most affected areas.
An absence of housing legal aid providers can lead to an array of problems that contribute to reduced access to justice.
Families on low incomes are unable to travel to see the one provider located miles from where they live, putting pressure on other firms which may not have the capacity to provide advice to everyone, especially in large areas.
The lack of providers can also lead to conflicts of interest even if each party requires a legal aid solicitor in different areas of law.
Commenting on the delays that can arise, 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.'
Last month, legal aid campaigners stressed the need for the government to save the 'dying' legal aid system at the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid.
John Gallagher, principal solicitor for Shelter
There can’t be any doubt that some people lose their homes for the want of finding a legal aid solicitor. Housing law is complex, and court procedure is a mystery to many occupiers. Without a solicitor to identify the issue and present their case, tenants find themselves adrift when it comes to knowing what to say in court.
We have come across cases of tenants who have been illegally evicted by landlords, but there are no legal aid solicitors in the area that we can refer them to, and the local authority does not have the resources to prosecute. As a result, the family becomes homeless, and the landlord realises that there are no consequences to his criminal act and will go on to treat other tenants in the same way.
At Shelter we do all we can to provide support and advice to people facing homelessness, but sadly our resources can only go so far. Unquestionably, the dearth of legal aid solicitors has a profound effect on the wellbeing of families in these crisis situations, and allows bad practice to continue unchallenged.