Liberty to take Legal Aid Agency to court

By agency reporter
October 23, 2018

The human rights organisation Liberty has launched a legal challenge against the Legal Aid Agency for blocking access to justice for residents seeking to take local authorities to court.

The Agency will not grant legal aid to people who cannot afford to pay lawyers if they want to challenge potentially unlawful Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs).

PSPOs allow councils to ban activities they deem to have a detrimental effect on the lives of others. Many have been used to ban rough sleeping – wrongly equating poverty with antisocial behaviour in defiance of Home Office guidance.

The Legal Aid Agency will not provide financial assistance to challenge PSPOs even if they disproportionately and unjustifiably affect the poorest in society – insisting concerned locals are not directly affected by an Order and that the Agency has not been empowered by the Government to fund PSPO cases.

The Agency’s position makes it near-impossible for homeless people cruelly targeted by PSPOs to enforce their basic human rights. Liberty has now applied to challenge this stance in the High Court.

Rosie Brighouse, Lawyer for Liberty, said: “Many local authorities are criminalising those in need, but the Legal Aid Agency's position robs all but the wealthy of their ability to challenge council abuse of power.  

“It is essential this case goes ahead so that anyone can challenge illegitimate Public Space Protection Orders.”

Represented by Liberty, a Poole resident sought to challenge her borough council’s PSPO which criminalises rough sleeping and begging in June 2018 – but the case was put on hold when the Legal Aid Agency refused to assist.

The Agency said the case was of no benefit to the client and insisted any litigation could be financed by crowdfunding instead. The body is also interpreting the law in a manner which makes legal aid completely unavailable for PSPO cases.

Liberty has now asked the High Court for permission to challenge the Agency’s position.

In its submissions to the Court, the organisation contends that locals are directly affected by any measures which put them at risk of criminalisation, that the relevant legislation does permit the Agency to fund PSPO cases, and that the ability to challenge PSPOs is of great public importance.

Councils using Orders to target rough sleepers have caused widespread concern and prompted the Government to issue guidance against doing so. And with homelessness on the rise in the UK, there are real benefits to granting legal aid to people seeking to strike down these unfair PSPOs.

Public Space Protection Orders are already notoriously difficult to challenge as legal cases must be lodged within six weeks of an Order coming into force. The Legal Aid Agency’s stance compounds the situation, making it almost impossible to get to court.

Liberty has instructed Jamie Burton and Angela Fitzpatrick of Doughty Street Chambers. If successful, the case will have major implications for anyone seeking to challenge a potentially unlawful PSPO.

Created in 2014 by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, PSPOs enable local authorities to criminalise activities that have a persistent and unreasonable detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the area.

Liberty opposed their creation on the basis that they are too widely drawn, with vague definitions of what can be criminalised and disproportionately punitive sanctions, and would result in the fast-tracking of vulnerable individuals into the criminal justice system.

Violating a PSPO carries an on-the-spot penalty of up to £100. If unable to pay, those in breach could face prosecution and have to pay up to £1,000.

Councils have used them to criminalise all manner of innocuous activities including gathering in groups of two or more people, lying down in public and swearing. Dozens have targeted rough sleepers, hitting people with fines they cannot possibly afford.

The Home Office issued new guidance in December 2017 stating that PSPOs should not be used to target people solely on the basis they are homeless or sleeping rough – but this guidance has had little impact and councils continue to misuse the powers.

* Liberty https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/

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