Thousands of vulnerable people face losing access to valuable support as legal aid cuts leave advice services struggling to stay afloat. Richard Shrubb reports
Thirteen-year-old David* has Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, a neurodegenerative disorder which will kill him by the time he is 20.
He and his mother Claire* moved into ‘accessible’ housing provided by their local housing association in 2007. But the house had a spiral staircase that David could not negotiate as his condition worsened. There was a lift, but it frequently broke down and Claire’s then partner - a firefighter - deemed this to be a serious risk to David in the case of a fire.
The family initially represented themselves as they fought for a disabled facilities grant for over a year to build a downstairs bedroom. They felt fobbed off with excuses from their midlands-based local authority, which said it would only pay for DFG if the modifications would be used for more than five years - knowing that David will likely die within this time.
At this point Claire turned to the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign for advice and support - in turn it passed the case on to its pro bono law firm.
While David’s case is still active, he does at least now have the support and legal backing of the charity as his family seeks to improve his living conditions.
But many people like him are finding it increasingly difficult to access the advice and support they need to obtain housing support or challenge decisions by housing providers that have had a negative impact on their lives.
Both the tenants and advisors are, in effect, the victims of huge changes to the procurement of advice services driven by £350 million cuts to legal aid. Put simply, while the Legal Services Commission still commissions legal aid services - such as housing advice from homelessness charity Shelter - tenders aren’t what they used to be. Many services have been left facing a catch-22 situation - they face a significant increase in demand due to the impact of cuts, while suffering a significant reduction in resources.
In some cases this can mean tenants miss out on adaptations - in others vital advice that may enable them to claim benefits or challenge official decisions.
What though, if anything, can charities providing advice do to mitigate the impact of this procurement nightmare?
Just last week, one of the most well-known housing charities Shelter, was hit - admitting it is to close 10 of its housing advice offices in England because of legal aid cuts. The organisation can certainly prove that housing advice is more in demand than ever. Over the past year its website has attracted a 17 per cent surge in visits to pages providing homelessness advice. The number of people its helpline has assisted, who are either homeless or face losing their home, has jumped by 80 per cent over the past three years to 23,086 in the 12 months to September 2012.
Social landlords, of course, are often the ones trying to meet the growing need or are faced with rising arrears, if tenants don’t receive good advice.
A survey of advocacy services carried out by independent resource and support organisation Action for Advocacy in 2011 revealed that 21 per cent of advocates working with advice services listed housing as one of the top three issues they dealt with. A further 21 per cent listed adaptations and 28 per cent mentioned welfare benefits. The survey estimated that with 45 per cent of respondent services facing budget cuts, a total of up to 66,000 vulnerable people face losing access to support and advice in how to fight their corner.
Smaller, specialist advice organisations are frequently the ones that suffer the most in the current climate, leaving people reliant on bigger, more generic advice, according to advocacy professionals. Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, states that ‘small, disabled-run [advice] groups are being squeezed out in the tendering process’.
‘They really shouldn’t be disadvantaged in this way,’ she adds.
Anne Whitworth, a housing lawyer at Gloucester Law Centre, explains that funding is only getting tighter and that from April ‘legal aid will be paid at the end of the case’.
‘We have to pay our employees’ salaries while they are carrying out the representation,’ she adds. Although the centre’s service will survive in Gloucester beyond April, it is clear that times are tough.
‘Without specialist advice a lot of people will suffer,’ Ms Whitworth adds. ‘They won’t get the help they need and will stumble into difficulty,’ she adds.
She suggests that non-specialist groups dispensing advice ‘can cause more problems for clients than if they had been to a housing solicitor, for instance’.
Jakki Cowley, delivery manager at A4A, an organisation which offers independent advocacy advice and information, says that in the current environment ‘advocacy organisations are bidding at the lowest possible cost for tenders’, squeezing their already limited resources.
All of which automatically raises the question about how many more people like David are currently struggling to access the specialist housing advice they need.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice insists that ‘legal aid is a fundamental part of our legal system’ but adds that ‘resources aren’t limitless - it is funded by taxpayers and should be reserved for cases where there is genuine need, such as for those facing eviction, repossession and homelessness’.
But some advice agencies argue that by making it more difficult to access advice early on - in effect waiting for problems to escalate - the ultimate financial cost may end up being far higher.
Many organisations are, however, attempting to innovate to cope with their resource problems.
One of the more controversial suggestions is charging for advice.
Ms Cowley says A4A has ‘always felt strongly that advocacy should be free at the point of access’. Despite this, she says ‘many services are now looking into charging for advocacy by way of at least being able to provide a service’.
She admits that this will cause some problems as those who need advocacy are by their very nature vulnerable at the time. ‘Then of course how do services decide who charges and who doesn’t?’
The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has taken another approach. It has published a ‘self-advocacy pack’ to reduce its advocacy workload. David Moore-Crouch, head of advocacy, says that ‘most advocacy enquiries are now dealt with through the giving of the advocacy pack’. It’s had an impact - MDC advocates dealt with 197 cases in 2011 and 111 cases in 2012.
‘You could say that although the number of people coming to us for advocacy advice is rising, the number of actual cases is decreasing due to the advocacy pack,’ Mr Moore-Crouch adds.
He goes on to explain that ‘the major part of an application for a disabled facilities grant is in applying for it in the first place. Clients will do the legwork and ask for an assessment. If the DFG is rejected then they come to us [directly]’.
A4A will publish a self-advocacy pack in March this year. But Ms Cowley cautions that ‘though there has been success in providing these packs in other countries such as the US, there has been no study on outcomes from the packs in the UK’.
Ms Cowley says advocacy groups should consider forming relationships with law firms to get pro bono support - the MDC has a relationship with Hogan Lovells and several trade unions have one with Thompsons. ‘Advocacy groups will need to make more connections with legal firms than they are currently to be able to signpost/support someone to access legal advocacy pro bono,’ she adds.
In the face of financial pressure, they say a business should ‘diversify or die.’ In order to provide their services, so advocacy organisations must find solutions beyond those they traditionally rely on. Charging clients who can afford to pay, empowering individuals to do the ‘easy’ work themselves and getting support from law firms to assist in certain situations has worked. In the next 12 months, the ecosystem of advocacy groups will change - just how and what impact it will have on those in desperate housing need, is down to the imagination of those who work in the sector.
*names have been changed
Eleven-year-old James Hill* has Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy. He moved with his mother Julie* and two sisters into a private rental bungalow in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 2008. They agreed from the start with the landlord that they would have an en suite bathroom built with a disabled facilities grant to help James.
Ms Hill says: ‘To wash James I have to partially undress him and carry him down the corridor to the bathroom.’ But the corridor between James’s bedroom and the bathroom is draughty and due to his illness a common cold can quickly lead to pneumonia.
As a result, medical assessments concluded that an en suite bathroom was necessary, and in late 2010 the application for a DFG was finalised.
Scottish Borders Council had to get an affidavit - a written statement -signed by the family’s landlord to allow the modification, but the landlord’s mortgage lender would not let him, which prevented the application going through.
In Ms Hill’s opinion, this is where the trouble began. ‘The council blamed the landlord for the application not going through,’ she says. But she found this difficult to believe, because ‘our landlords take such good care of us - they are like part of the family’. This was clearly demonstrated when the landlord changed lender to be allowed to sign the form as part of the DFG application.
Ms Hill says that because the family were renting privately, they were deemed high-risk tenants.
‘There was no mention of this before,’ she adds. ‘Other excuses [early in the process included] the council saying “we don’t fund extensions”.’
Up until this point the family had gone through the process on their own, but when Ms Hill had a nervous breakdown during the legal battle, they contacted the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign for help. At the time of writing the charity says it is close to concluding the case.
Scottish Borders Council says: ‘The council is unable to comment on the details of individual cases. However, we have been working closely with both the family and the landlord to resolve this and continue to do so.’