An independent commission has called for the reintroduction of legal aid for all housing cases, but stopped short of calling for the restoration of all civil legal aid.
The report of the Low Commission on the future of advice and legal support – Tackling the advice deficit – a strategy for access to advice and legal support on social welfare law in England and Wales – published today, recommends legal aid is made available for cases involving housing disrepair and the right to quiet enjoyment, rather than only for cases where people face eviction.
The report follows a year-long investigation, led by cross-bencher Lord (Colin) Low (pictured), into the state of social welfare law provision around the country, following the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 which removed large areas of civil law from the scope of legal aid.
Following its preliminary report last August, the commission’s 100 recommendations aim to develop a national strategy for advice and legal support. It suggests the creation of a cross-departmental ministerial post to oversee the implementation of the strategy.
The report calls for:
- Urgent reforms to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable people can get the help they need to deal with employment, debt, housing and other social welfare law problems.
- A £100m fund to ensure a basic level of provision, with half the money coming from central government and half raised by other sources, including the proceeds of interest on lawyer trust accounts scheme and dormant funds held by solicitors, as well as a levy on pay day loan companies.
- Urgent reform of the operation of the exceptional funding arrangements intended to act as a ‘safety net’ for those not eligible for legal aid, suggesting the current arrangements are ‘unwieldy and unworkable’.
The commission found that advice lines to voluntary agencies such as Shelter and Citizens Advice have been overwhelmed with calls for help from people looking for legal advice.
Shelter is able to answer only 60,000 of the 140,000 calls it receives a year and the CBA only has the capacity to answer 45% of calls made to it.
In contrast, the report states the number of calls to the government’s ‘poorly promoted and difficult to find’ Civil Legal Advice line, which acts as a mandatory telephone gateway for all seeking legal aid, has fallen. In April 2012 it received 35,00 calls, but that dropped to 20,000 in July 2013.
The commission calls for a one stop national helpline providing a comprehensive advice service for the general public.
The report notes that LASPO, which cut by £89m a year the amount spent on social welfare law, together with reductions in local authority funding of advice and legal support, estimated to be at least £40m a year, has ‘destabilised and reduced’ support at a time of increased need.
The commission was established by the Legal Action Group in 2012 with funding from major trusts and foundations and support from law firms Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Clifford Chance.
Lord Low said: ‘Our report makes sobering reading and we are calling on political parties of all stripes to recognise the need to act before we reach crisis point.’
Advice agencies around the country are ‘buckling under the strain’ and ordinary people are ‘left with nowhere to turn’.
Amanda Finlay, commission vice chair and former legal services strategy director at the Ministry of Justice, said: ‘In these days of austerity, we realise hard decisions have to be made. But just cutting legal aid is not the answer. The problems still remain.’
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: 'This report highlights some of the problems already emerging as a result of the cuts to social welfare law under LASPO. It also starts to identify practical ways forward, which we hope all political parties will recognise as desirable.'