A wider picture of the advice lawyers have been providing in the aftermath of last month's Grenfell Tower disaster emerged today at the first all-party parliamentary group meeting on legal aid since the general election.
Alison Mohammed, director of homelessness charity Shelter, told the meeting that solicitors 'have been doing what they do best', providing help in nearby community centres. Lawyers and specialist housing advisers from the charity and the Housing Law Practitioners' Association have been working with North Kensington Law Centre to run free daily drop-in advice clinics. As well as advising those directly affected by the fire, lawyers have been advising residents in nearby areas 'whose children cannot sleep at night because they remember hearing the noise of the fire' or school friends have died.
'A lot of people are wanting to know what their housing options are. It's important we give them that,' Mohammed said. The charity is trying to find out whether the emergency discretionary fund for victims will be taken into account when the government assesses means for legal aid. Shelter would also like 'undocumented' residents at Grenfell Tower to be granted indefinite leave to remain so they can seek advice without fear.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said law centres are being approached by residents across the country 'freaked' about the quality of their public housing. 'Whilst there are mechanisms of addressing that within legal aid, there's a whole area of private housing disrepair that's been taken out of legal aid,' she added.
The Law Society has published a briefing document on legal aid for Grenfell Tower victims.
Another prominent theme of today's meeting was the government's latest legal aid statistics.
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, noted that 933,815 new civil legal aid matters were started in 2009-10, a figure which dropped to 146,618 in 2016-17. 'Do these people not need this advice? Where are they going?' The number of legal aid providers is also continuing to fall. 'It's just an impossible workload with an impossible amount of money coming in,' Storer said.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network, said the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act has 'exceeded its intentions'. Ben-Cnaan was shocked that fewer than 1,000 people received exceptional case funding last year. 'Is that a functional safety net?' he asked.
A 'big question' for criminal legal aid lawyers is whether the government will reinstate a second 8.75% fee cut, said Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association.