Cuts to legal aid will have a devastating impact on people with housing problems
The right to justice
The effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on law centres’ ability to provide advice on housing law will be potentially devastating for our clients. The only housing cases that will remain in scope are homelessness reviews and appeals, cases where the home is at immediate risk of possession, serious housing disrepair and anti-social behaviour.
Even where a possession case remains in scope, legal aid will not be available to address the underlying causes of the threat of eviction. Very often these causes are welfare-related and advisors won’t be able to tackle them - even though early intervention often prevents these situations from escalating into possession proceedings.
The exclusion of benefits work from legal aid will tie the hands of advisors who are trying to prevent homelessness and lead to many more unresolved cases swamping the county courts.
For people on low incomes or who have lost their job and find themselves in financial difficulty, housing benefit and payments covering mortgate costs can be essential to help meet the costs of their home, but delays in processing claims, wrong decisions or incorrect payments can lead to rent or mortgage arrears. Unless the underlying benefit problem is resolved, the claimant has no hope of ever meeting rental or mortgage payments and clearing the arrears.
Legal aid will no longer be available for a range of serious housing problems, including advice on priority for the allocation of social housing, help to remedy poor housing conditions which fall short of causing ‘serious risk’ to the tenant, and assistance to stop harassment by a landlord or neighbour.
Issues about tenancies and housing status will also be excluded, despite being even more necessary as the changes to social housing tenure in the Localism Act begin to take effect.
The Law Centres Federation will continue to campaign to reverse the cuts to legal aid. In the short term we need to do whatever we can to make sure law centres survive and try to find new ways of helping people who would have been entitled to legal aid previously.
We will be gathering information about the impact on clients and publicising it via the media, as well as briefing politicians.
We look forward to working with other like-minded organisations and individuals to reinstate people’s right to justice regardless of their income. Rest assured we certainly won’t take it lying down.
Julie Bishop is director of Law Centres Federation