Legal practices are earning as little as £37.50 per hour to represent people on the brink of homelessness, the Law Society has told the government, which is seeking to reform an emergency court scheme.
The Ministry of Justice has been consulting on proposed changes to its Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme, which offers emergency face-to-face advice and advocacy to anyone facing possession proceedings in court on the day.
Responding to the consultation, which closed on Friday, the Society said the scheme is currently not commercially viable because of the low fees paid to providers.
Not-for profit agencies, such as law centres, account for just over half of the providers. According to the Society, one law centre calculated that, taking into account the costs of operating the scheme, they were effectively earning £37.50 an hour. 'This compares unfavourably with licensed work rates which most of this work would be carried out if not done under the [scheme],' the Society said. The licensed work rate would be approximately £60 per hour.
Government plans to close another 77 courts could also affect the scheme's sustainability. The Society says providers may be deterred from applying for a contract if they think the work will be short-lived. Those providing services in courts still open may not have sufficient resources to take on work previously allocated to the closed courts.
The Society recommends a basic attendance fee for all courts equivalent to having seen three clients - £226.80 for London, £214.65 outside London, plus travel time and costs. Chancery Lane points out that a typical morning listing requires providers to be available in court for at least three hours.
Travel costs should be claimable on the basis of actual public transport costs or mileage allowance. Procurement for contracts should not be price competitive. Agents should continue to be allowed as volume levels at courts in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool are too large for single providers to manage from their own resources. Joint bids should be permitted.
The consultation opened last October, over a year after the High Court quashed controversial procurement changes in a judicial review brought by the Law Centres Network.