Law Centres challenge government plans on legal aid to prevent homelessness

By agency reporter
May 21, 2018

On Monday and Tuesday, 21-22 May 2018, the High Court will hear a challenge from the Law Centres Network (LCN) to changes that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) wants to introduce to legal aid.

The changes concerned relate to duty solicitor desks in County Courts. These desks provide immediate legal advice, assistance and advocacy to people at risk of losing their home. These people, often vulnerable, commonly face possession proceedings due to rent arrears or mortgage debt. To them, stakes are high – they might be evicted and become homeless – so this timely assistance is vital.

There are currently 113 Housing Possession Court Duty schemes (HPCDS) across England and Wales. The  MoJ last year decided to consolidate into only 47 schemes, each covering much larger geographical areas. Currently, the MoJ sets the fees for the service, and organisations wanting to deliver it bid for contracts at these fixed fees. Last year, the MoJ also decided to introduce a price competition among bidders, potentially driving fees even lower.

LCN is asking the Court to quashthe  MoJ’s decision to proceed with the tender in a form that drastically consolidates the scheme areas and introduces price competition. It argues that the MoJ chose to dismantle HPCDS as currently known, based on questionable and untested assumptions, and without any serious analysis of how this might affect the people for whom the service is intended. Importantly, Law Centres are not alone in objecting to the changes: the MoJ decided to press ahead despite overwhelming opposition from duty desk providers which responded to its consultation on the matter.

Developments since the launch of the legal challenge raise the stakes for Law Centres. Highly unusually, the Legal Aid Agency completed its HPCDS tender much faster than even it had predicted. The outcome also bore out LCN’s concerns: 12 Law Centres currently hold duty desk contracts, but only three have won their bids to operate duty contracts from the autumn.

As community resources with strong local links, Law Centres delivering duty desks connect the people helped with follow-on assistance, to resolve the underlying issues which got them to the brink of home loss: benefits miscalculation, delay or sanction, problem debt, or unlawful job loss. This help is no longer offered on legal aid, but is vital to make the legal-aided duty desk intervention truly effective.

Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said, “Law Centres have provided the duty court scheme for 17 years. It is an important way to contact people in crisis who don’t know how or where to find help. Yet for unknown reasons, the MoJ has decided that it is completely ‘rational’ to ‘fix’ something that is not broken, while ignoring the view of expert practitioners. We are dedicated to giving legal assistance to people in need, and are sick and tired of watching vital services be degraded.”

Cuts introduced in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have taken much of social welfare law – welfare benefits, housing, employment, immigration – out of legal aid scope. The Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme is one of the few provisions remaining. Last year it helped nearly 40,000 cases.

* A Law Centre is a not-for-profit law practice, often a charity, which specialises in social welfare law. Law Centres focus their largely free legal assistance on the people in greatest need, who live in disadvantage and are the least able to afford to pay for legal assistance. There are currently 43 across the country.

* Law Centres Network http://www.lawcentres.org.uk/

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