Thousands of people are being made homeless every year because they cannot find lawyers to help them resist eviction, charities are warning.
Even though legal aid is available to help anyone in danger of losing their home, there has been an 18% decline in the number of challenges brought, at a time of record repossessions in the private rental market.
The latest figures, highlighted by the Legal Action Group (LAG) and the homeless charity Shelter, reinforce warnings by the Law Society that “advice deserts”, where few, if any, lawyers are left in practice who are capable of dealing with legal aid housing cases, are emerging across England and Wales.
Last year, 42,728 households in rented accommodation were forcibly removed, according to Ministry of Justice figures. That number has risen by 53% since 2010 and now stands at an all-time high.
Deep cuts to other forms of housing legal aid introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012, bureaucratic obstructions and poor hourly rates have progressively driven most lawyers specialising in housing out of the market, leaving few practitioners.
“People on low incomes facing homelessness and eviction are struggling to get the local face-to-face advice they desperately need and are entitled to by law,” the LAG’s latest report says. The 18% decrease, recorded in official MoJ figures, is in the three months of April to June this year compared with the same quarter the previous year.
There are some areas of the country, such as Suffolk and Shropshire, where there is no housing legal aid expert operating at all, the LAG points out. “Too often, lack of any early intervention funding not only ties [lawyers’] hands, but makes it impossible to either identify clients for whom a ‘stitch in time’ might work, or deliver the outcomes that can help to avoid litigation.”
One housing solicitor said: “It’s impossible to separate the cuts to legal aid from the cuts to the benefits system. The bedroom tax and Atos disability reassessments all feed into problems we deal with, such as homelessness. Because we can’t do benefits work any more, it’s harder for us to nip problems in the bud. We’re forced to take action at a much later stage, which will ultimately cost the government a lot more.”
Steve Hynes, the LAG’s director, told the Guardian: “Due to civil legal aid and other spending cuts, people with common civil legal problems such as difficulties paying the rent or claiming benefits have nowhere to turn.
“The reduction in civil legal aid services has gone beyond what the government originally intended. Civil legal aid services are in freefall, with solicitor firms and advice agencies closing.
“The government need to use the recently announced review of the LASPO Act to rethink providing early advice in cases, as too often help is only given when costly court-based solutions are the only option.”
The number of all legal aid advice cases has dropped by 75% following the LASPO cuts in April 2013 and is continuing to fall.
John Gallagher, principal solicitor at the homelessness charity Shelter, said: “We have housing officers in 17 locations across the country and some of them are the only source of legal assistance in their areas.
“In many areas there are only two or three providers of legal help. Some problems are, at root, to do with benefits but we can only claim for work on repossessions.”
Gallagher said there was a large amount of “unmet need” with claimants who are technically “in scope” – entitled to receive legal aid – but who cannot find specialist lawyers to help them with their cases. Thousands of people in such a situation are probably losing their homes every year, he said.
Lawyers who work on housing legal aid cases are paid at the rate of £57 an hour, rising to £63 if they appear in court. “That may not initially sound a bad return,” Gallagher explained. “But it has not gone up for 15 or 20 years and lawyers have to pay all their overheads. It’s just not viable in some places.”
The Legal Aid Agency has made the process of obtaining funding increasingly complex and difficult, Gallagher added: “There are people who because of want of legal representation lose their homes because they don’t know what to say in court.”
The Law Society, which represents solicitors across England and Wales, has campaigned to raise awareness of so-called “advice deserts”. Earlier this summer Catherine Dixon, the organisation’s chief executive, warned: “Advice on housing is vital for people who are facing eviction, the homeless and those renting a property in serious disrepair. Early legal advice on housing matters can make the difference between a family being made homeless or not.
“People who require legal aid advice for housing issues often need it urgently,” she said. “Families are unable to access justice because they cannot afford to travel to see the one provider in their area who may be located long distances from where they live.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010