The decimation of legal aid UK-wide has serious implications for the function of any future Housing Court.
New analysis showing up to a million people now live in areas with no legal aid provision for housing, with a further 15 million in areas with one provider.
Some 15 law centres – often filling gaps in legal aid provision – have shut since the coalition government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) that withdrew aid from areas of law including housing, family, welfare, and debt.
The present government is undertaking a review LASPO’s impact, which is expected out at the the end of this month.
Government is seeking views on how a specialist housing court could work.
Already there are concerns across the housing and legal sectors as to how cases could be brought by tenants without access to legal aid – given the acknowledged complexity of such cases.
Campaign group Liberty said access to justice had been “significantly undermined” by cuts to legal aid, while the Ministry of Justice maintains it takes “urgent action” whenever it had concerns over provision.
The analysis of Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency data since 2011-12 shows:
- Around a million fewer claims for legal aid are being processed each year
- More than 1,000 fewer legal aid providers were paid for civil legal aid work than in 2011-12
- Four legal aid providers for welfare cover Wales and the South West while 41 cover London and the South East
- Almost half of all community care legal aid providers are based in London
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, said provision of legal advice across England and Wales was creating “legal aid deserts”.
“Even for those cases where legal aid is still supposed to be available, it can be very difficult for a client to find a lawyer willing to take on the case,” he said.
Overall, there has been a more than five-fold rise in people representing themselves in court.
Volunteers at the Personal Support Unit helped around 65,000 of them last year – six years ago it was fewer than 10,000.
In looking to a housing court, government concedes to the present process of resolving housing disputes as “confusing and acting as a deterrent” to those seeking justice.
Other factors include reducing the need for multiple hearings in different courts, transferring certain types of housing cases between the courts and tribunal or vice-versa to ensure cases are resolved quickly and issuing new guidance to help tenants and landlords navigate their way through the legal system.
LASPO also lowered the means test and scrapped automatic eligibility for those in receipt of means-tested benefits in the name of making “significant savings” and delivering “better overall value for money”.
But campaigners say it has simply shifted the burden of cost onto the courts, NHS and social care.
Labour’s shadow secretary of state for justice, Richard Burgon MP, says cuts to legal aid have been a “false economy”.
“A lack of early legal advice can create unnecessary costs for the taxpayer, as legal problems go to court when they could have been resolved earlier or spiral into costly social problems as people lose their homes.
“These figures highlight the grim reality of a justice system in crisis. These legal aid cuts have deliberately weakened people’s ability to challenge injustices and enforce their rights,” he said.