A housing shortage in London, record numbers of possessions, a rise in homelessness and the introduction of the bedroom tax has led to a rise in demand for housing advice. Yet while the level of demand is rising, the overall number of people with housing problems being helped through legal aid is falling.
While the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) removed large areas of legal aid from scope, mainstream housing law came away less badly scathed. Sara Stephens of Anthony Gold is an executive member of the Housing Law Practitioners Association and head of its legal aid working party. Commenting in this month's Legal Action magazine, Sara says there remains a huge lack of clarity both among the public and profession over the areas where public funding remains available.
Public funding remains available for a wide scope of housing issues, yet Sara notes that LASPO created some bizarre funding anomalies that can leave clients able only to partially solve their problems. For example, she explains, "You can get legal aid funding to fight an injunction regarding damage to property, but not for the related damages claim." She continues that even where a problem remains within scope, it can be difficult to prove a client's means.
A National Audit Office report last year found that in 14 local authorities, no providers had started any face-to-face publicly funded work in any area of civil law, including housing. Sara points out that this results in vulnerable clients remaining in unsuitable accommodation and suffering increased stress and anxiety. She says, "I would like to see LASPO repealed." She suggests that the government reintroduce legal aid passporting for those in receipt of welfare benefits, so they do not have to waste time proving their lack of means. Sara would also recommend bringing welfare benefits back into scope. She says, "At the moment we can assist someone with a possession case, but can do nothing to help with the rent arrears that are causing the problem."
Sara was commenting in the article 'Confusion over eligibility and scope means firms shun public housing' by Catherine Baksi, published in April's edition of Legal Action magazine.
Read the full article here (subscription required).