Pockets of legal aid “deserts” in areas

By Local Democracy Reporter
Piers Meyler

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JUST three districts in Essex have publicly funded housing legal advice, according to new figures from the Law Society, which it says reveals catastrophic ‘legal aid deserts’.

Harlow and Southend each have one provider offering housing legal aid – offered by Harlow & West Essex Law Centre and Southend-On-Sea Guild Of Help & Citizens Advice Bureau.

Grays has two providers – Kingsville Law Solicitors and Sternberg Reed Solicitors.

Sue Jones from Harlow & West Essex Law Centre said that the service gets queries mostly on issues surrounding homelessness – though there can be queries surrounding domestic violence and rent arrears – from people as far away as Cambridge and Suffolk.

She said: “The reason that most law firms don’t tender for legal aid is because it’s not very well paid so they find it difficult to cover costs.”

She added: “The first year can be difficult because you don’t get paid unil you close a case.”

“People facing homelessness or trying to challenge a rogue landlord increasingly can’t get the expert legal advice they desperately need,” Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said.

“More than 21 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes struggling to access the legal advice they are entitled to when they are at their most vulnerable.

“Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently – if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county they might as well be on Mars.”

Having just one housing legal aid provider in a large area can result in a range of problems. Anyone on an income low enough to qualify for legal aid, let alone in rent arrears, is unlikely to be able to afford to travel a great distance to see a solicitor.

Working people, families and anyone with dependants, may have serious logistical challenges if they have to travel across a county to find a provider, particularly in rural areas with patchy public transport.

One firm covering a large area may not have capacity to provide advice to all those who need it.

A single provider may have to decline clients due to a conflict of interest, because one law firm cannot represent both a tenant and their landlord.

A conflict can also arise if the firm has been acting for the landlord on another issue, such as a family matter. This would mean the firm would not be able to act for the tenant.

The fees government pays for legal aid provision have not increased since 1998-99, equating to a 41 per cent real-terms reduction. On top of this, fees were cut by a further 10 per cent in 2011.

Catastrophically low rates of pay are forcing legal professionals across the country to withdraw from providing legal aid, as the work is not economically viable for small businesses like solicitor firms.

“Homelessness is devastating for anyone who experiences or is at risk of it,” Ms Blacklaws said.

“There is no longer legal aid for early advice, meaning many people can only get help when their situation is critical.

“The only housing issues still in scope are homelessness, harassment, eviction due to rent arrears and disrepair that is so bad it is hazardous to occupants’ health.

“The government must ensure everyone who has a right to state-funded legal advice can actually get it when they so desperately need it. Legal rights are meaningless if people can’t enforce them.”

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