The government has unveiled a revamped emergency legal aid scheme for tenants facing eviction which it hopes will address a sustainability crisis in the sector.
The housing possession court duty scheme provides emergency advice and advocacy to anyone facing eviction, regardless of their financial circumstances. Yesterday, the Ministry of Justice unveiled proposals for a new housing loss prevention advice service (HLPAS), which would incorporate the existing service and early legal advice before court. Contracts would be awarded for individual courts rather than geographical areas.
The Legal Aid Agency has repeatedly had to address gaps in provision arising from practitioners quitting the scheme.
A consultation paper states that the government has been concerned that the schemes are unsustainable, ‘evidenced by the ongoing incidence of providers pulling out of contract’.
The paper says: ‘Whilst continuity of service has been maintained to date, there is a risk that gaps in service provision may appear which have the potential to negatively impact on the clients who rely upon this vital service. In addition, the necessity of regularly retendering the service following the withdrawal of providers adds to the administrative burden on the LAA and does not provide value for money for the taxpayer.’
The proposals would cost a total of £7.4m a year. An impact assessment published alongside the consultation states that the proposals should make the scheme more financially sustainable, increase the availability of early legal advice and follow-up advice, which in turn should lead to a more effective service and less burden on the courts.
The Law Society cautiously welcomed the proposals. I. Stephanie Boyce, president, said the availability of non-means tested legal advice prior to court hearings, including guidance on welfare benefits and debt, would be a welcome step.
'However, this well-intentioned move may well be hampered by the desperate shortage of legal aid-funded solicitors with the relevant expertise in large swathes of the country which has created housing legal aid deserts, affecting millions of people,' she added. 'Those facing repossession will not be able to access vital legal advice if there is no legal aid provider in their area.
'While the funding commitments announced in the Autumn Budget were a welcome step in the right direction, much more investment is needed to ensure legal representation is available to those without the means to pay for it. Legal advice must be available to all tenants facing the loss of their homes, particularly when homelessness is a likely outcome.
'We welcome these proposals but are concerned that the scheme cannot function if the lack of legal aid providers is not addressed.'