Challenged over more incentives for legal aid lawyers to offer housing advice ahead of PRS reform, an MHCLG minister has told the House of Lords many such cases “will not to go to law” in future.
During a debate on so-called Section 21 no-fault evictions – that government is proposing to abolish subject to consultation – Labour’s Lord Beecham urged the MHCLG’s Lord Bourne to consult with the Ministry of Justice to ensure such incentives.
“In theory, legal aid and advice is available for eviction matters, though in practice there seem to be deserts in legal advice on this area because there are not sufficient practitioners who engage with that side of the law,” Lord Beecham said.
In response, Lord Bourne offered “reassurance” that proposed PRS reform would mean many cases will not need to go to law.
“Because the law will be absolutely clear and the activity will therefore cease,” said Lord Bourne.
“Our consultation will be wide and open for people to contribute.
“We are looking at other procedures for speeding up, simplifying and streamlining the process – and that should help, too,” he said.
As reported by 24housing, the decimation of legal aid services is seen as having serious implications for the function of any future Housing Court.
Analysis released in December last year revealed up to a million people now live in areas with no legal aid provision for housing, with a further 15 million having access to only 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, which withdrew aid from areas of law, including housing, family, welfare, and debt.
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.
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.
Having taken the views of members practising housing law, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) has warned Housing Court will fail unless it is adequately resourced with specialist judges, staff and locations to ensure access to justice – and a need for MHCLG to cut the ever-higher level of court fees or risk deterring “good and important cases”.
CILEx cited a need for increased guidance, with members suggesting that the general absence of clear guidance, alongside frequently changing rules and forms, were problematic for both practitioners and litigants alike.
The survey of members recommended that the guidance should encompass issues like contact information for local advice providers, basic advice for litigants on the availability of legal aid, and information on court fees.
The government is gearing up for a once-in-a-generation change to the PRS with the abolition of Section 21, consulting on new legislation that, in effect, creates open-ended tenancies.
Also on offer is an amended Section 8, clarifying circumstances in which landlords can regain their property should they wish to sell it or move in, and quicker court processes.
Evidence shows that the end of tenancies through the Section 21 process is one of the biggest causes of family homelessness.
The proposed measures are pitched as providing “greater certainty” for tenants while creating a more secure rental market for landlords in which to remain and invest.
The Residential Landlords Association (RLA) sees “serious dangers” in the proposed reform going wrong and urged government to move with caution to avoid crushing confidence in PRS among the “majority of good landlords”.
In this, RLA references the government’s own data as showing it takes over five months from a private landlord applying to the courts for a property to be repossessed to it actually happening.
Today (16th May), the RLA confirmed the response to its own Section 21 survey had been record-breaking, with more than 6,000 responses already in and still days to go.
In the Lords, Lord Bourne said “responsible” landlords had “nothing to fear” from the government’s proposed reform.
“It has been widely welcomed, including by many landlord groups – there is certainly no intention to hang about with this,” he said.