Vulnerable people must not be excluded from accessing legal advice, the Law Society has stressed, after the government announced proposals for a new housing court that could leave solicitors out in the cold.
The government will consult with the judiciary on setting up a new housing court to streamline the current system, Sajid Javid, communities and local government secretary, told the Conservative party conference in Manchester yesterday. The government will 'explore whether a new housing court could improve existing court processes, reduce dependence on legal representation and encourage arbitration, with benefits for both tenants and landlords'. Part of the aim will be to save time and money in dealing with disputes.
Chancery Lane said initiatives to streamline the current housing court system are always welcome, but warned that any new legislation for a specialist housing court needs to be carefully considered to ensure it improves access to justice.
Responding to the announcement, Joe Egan, Society president, said: 'Solicitors can provide advice at an early stage of a housing complaint about the merits of the claim to prevent matters escalating. Professional legal advice also helps clients to understand and comply with procedural requirements, thereby speeding up legal processes and reducing costs for all parties. It is vital the most vulnerable in our society are not excluded from accessing legal advice.'
The Society is currently working with the government, HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the judiciary to ensure any new housing legislation protects tenants' and landlords' rights.
Solicitor Simon Marciniak, chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, said many of the principles behind the proposal replicate justification for the online court, which Lord Justice Briggs rejected as unsuitable for housing in a report last year.
Marciniak, a partner at London firm Miles & Partners, added: 'The private rental sector is becoming increasingly beset by regulation and technical requirements which are far beyond the capabilities of the average litigant in person. Far from saving costs and time, withdrawing lawyers from the process would quickly stretch the court’s resources to breaking point.'
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network, said housing law is complex. 'To avoid homelessness, the last thing you want is to reduce tenants' legal representation. Arbitration is also often inappropriate in this setting, as many times duties are clear so the right outcome is not compromise but enforcing duty, for example to undertake repairs,' he added.
Reducing dependence on legal representation for housing cases could worsen an already fragile situation. Last year Chancery Lane published a map showing that nearly a third of legal aid areas had just one solicitor provider who specialises in housing and whose advice is available through legal aid.
Latest legal aid statistics show the volume of legally aided housing work halved after the then coalition government's controversial legal aid reforms were introduced in April 2013. Between April and June this year, housing work starts dropped by 13% compared to the same period last year. The number of completed claims and expenditure also decreased.