In early 2014, the Housing Law Practitioners Association (HLPA), of which I am an Executive Committee member, submitted written evidence to the Justice Select Committee for their inquiry into the effect of the Legal Aid cuts brought in by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Following the written evidence, I was asked to give oral evidence to the Committee, which I did in October 2014.
Today, the Committee has published its report and has concluded that the cuts have failed to target help to those who need it most, which was one of the supposed aims of LASPO.
One of the problems with LASPO is that a limited amount of legal aid ‘matter starts’ are allocated to each firm or law centre offering legal aid advice. This does not affect cases that go to Court, where a legal aid Certificate can be obtained, but does mean that only a limited amount of cases where we are providing advice and assistance can be taken on. The allocation of ‘matter starts’ was a problem before LASPO but there has been a large reduction in the number of ‘matter starts’ provided.
The report quotes my evidence on this as follows:
“The idea that a finite amount of people can get assistance is a problem and does go against the supposed aims of LASPO, which is to help the most serious and vulnerable clients—the most serious cases—because it effectively means that the first, say, 100 people through the door get the help and anyone who arrives after that does not.”
Since LASPO, Legal Aid is no longer available to give advice and assistance in relation to welfare benefit issues. In housing, this means that we can assist someone in relation to possession proceedings being brought against them by their landlord on the basis of rent arrears, but cannot assist in resolving any housing benefit issues that may be causing the rent arrears. This is likely to increase costs and delay court proceedings. I told the Committee that “lawyers on the Lambeth county court duty scheme found around half of all housing cases were being adjourned for this reason”. I participate in the Lambeth County Court duty scheme and have seen the effects of this myself.
One of the other issues that the report noted was that the Government has failed to publicise that you can still get Legal Aid for many areas of law, which means that many people who do qualify for Legal Aid are not aware that it is available. HLPA and other groups have been trying to publicise the availability of Legal Aid ever since the Legal Aid cuts took effect. I wrote an article with Jan Luba QC for Legal Action Group Magazine to publicise the availability of Legal Aid for housing cases (http://www.lag.org.uk/magazine/2014/11/sorting-myths-from-facts-over-housing-cases.aspx)
The Justice Select Committee report can be found at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmjust/311/311.pdf