The lord chancellor has downplayed concerns about the number of legal aid housing advice 'deserts' that have been identified across the country.
A week ago the Law Society revealed that over half of the population of England and Wales is living in a local authority that has one or no housing legal aid provider. Yesterday, David Gauke told the House of Lords constitution committee that advice remains available through a telephone service regardless of where someone lives.
As of 31 March, Gauke said, there is at least one provider offering housing and debt services in all but five procurement areas. The Legal Aid Agency recently concluded a procurement process in two of the areas and contracts were expected to commence today. On the remaining areas, 'the LAA are considering their response on that', he said.
Gauke pointed out that the Ministry of Justice had recently completed its review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which cut vast swaths of civil law from the scope of legal aid.
He said: 'We announced we are launching a series of pilots offering support to people with social welfare problems like housing, including expansion of early legal advice to determine the most effective solutions in future. So, in addition to the Civil Legal Advice telephone service, through which housing advice is available, we are investing £5m in an innovation fund to help people access justice wherever they are in England and Wales. I think the area you've identified in terms of housing legal aid services is clearly going to be a priority within that area.'
The justice secretary said the ministry wanted face-to-face provision to be available, 'but I also want to stress that everywhere there is also the telephone service available'.
The Society has said that reliance on one provider in a large area can lead to several problems. For instance, the sole provider would not be able to represent both landlord and tenant.
The government itself has said that the volume of legally aided housing work has been falling since 2014. Latest quarterly statistics show that, between October and December 2018, housing work starts fell by 2% compared to the same period in 2017. Completed claims and expenditure decreased by 20% and 22% respectively.
In a written question submitted on Monday, Labour peer Lord Beecham asks what assessment the government has made of the impact of legal aid fees for housing cases not being increased for 20 years on the number of solicitors' firms providing advice and representation, why fees have not increased, whether the government intends to increase fees - on the latter, if not, why not.