The Law Society has again exposed the worsening landscape of legal aid housing provision. Although the MoJ is piloting early support, is this really enough to revive a barren area of law?
In 2016 the Law Society revealed that nearly a third of legal aid areas had just one housing provider, with Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk having none. Today, well over half of the population of England and Wales lives in a local authority that has one such legal aid provider or none at all.
Instead of ploughing money back into the system, the government wants to explore different ways that early legal support can be provided. But those who urgently need to access publicly funded housing services and the few providers that are left cannot afford to wait.
Crunching the government’s own data, the Society has worked out that 184 of 348 local authorities have no housing provider, while 81 have just one. A further 29 council areas have two providers, 17 have three and 37 have more than three.
In Cornwall, one firm covers a population of over 500,000 spread over 1,300 square miles.
Those living in the south-west are hit worst, with 92% resident in a local authority with one or no provider. This is followed by the east of England (91%); south-east (82%); East Midlands (79%); West Midlands (65%); Yorkshire and the Humber (51%); north west and Wales (both 49%); and the north-east (34%). Only London achieves a single digit figure, with 4%.
The Ministry of Justice appears to think that a single provider is sufficient. When asked about availability and distribution by Labour peer Lord Beecham, justice minister Lord Keen of Elie said that, as of 1 March, there was at least one provider offering housing services in all but four procurement areas, representing 97% coverage across England and Wales.
However, the Society points out (as it did three years ago) that reliance on one provider in a large area can lead to problems. Those on incomes low enough to qualify for legal aid are unlikely to be able to afford to travel far to see a solicitor. The sole provider may not have sufficient capacity to help everyone. They will not be able to represent both landlord and tenant. If the firm has acted for the landlord on a non-housing related matter, it would not be able to act for the tenant.
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, and 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.’
Legal aid fees have not risen for 20 years. The Society says ‘catastrophically’ low rates of pay are forcing practitioners to withdraw from legal aid work.
The latest victim of cuts is Swansea-based TA Law. The social welfare firm, which says it has helped 90,000 vulnerable people over the past decade, will close in June.
Helen Williams, managing director, told the Gazette: ‘When expenditure continues to increase, yet fee income continues to go down, that’s not really going to end well.’
Following publication of the Society’s map, a spokesperson for the MoJ said it was ‘misleading’ to compare legal aid services to local authority areas ‘as that is not how provision is set – people can be covered by nearby providers or over the telephone if they are unable to travel’.
The spokesperson added: ‘There are more offices offering housing advice services now than under the previous contract and we are launching a series of pilots offering support to people with social welfare problems like housing, including expansion of early legal advice.’
Williams said her firm has always been a big supporter of preventative advice: ‘The government realises now, years down the line, perhaps we should have some preventative advice – it’s so frustrating as we’ve been saying that since 2011.’