The proposals to change legal aid will have a devastating effect on people experiencing housing problems. Shelter, the UK’s leading housing and homelessness charity, has warned that the proposals are likely to lead to:
- More families and individuals being forced to sleep on the streets, or on night buses or railway stations, because they are unable to access emergency accommodation;
- More children being separated from their families, as they are taken into Social Services care;
- More families living in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation.
Here are some examples provided by Shelter in its briefing note on the proposals. If you are interested in finding out more, this short note is well worth a read.
Eviction and homelessness
A couple are evicted from their rented accommodation because the landlord decides to sell the property. The wife is suffering from cancer and receiving treatment. The couple go to their local authority and make a homelessness application. The local authority refuse to provide them with temporary accommodation, saying that the wife is not ‘vulnerable’ compared to the average person who is street homeless, because she has her husband who can support her. The local authority refuse to change their minds even after the couple’s legal aid lawyer from Shelter sends them medical evidence showing why the wife would face a very high risk of infection if she is not housed. The couple have no other option except to ask a judge in the High Court to review the local authority’s decision. This is called a judicial review. After they make this application, the local authority back down and provide them with temporary accommodation.
If the proposed changes to legal aid are implemented, it will be much harder for a couple in this position to find a lawyer prepared to help them challenge the wrong decision that the local authority made. This is because the government want to change the way that lawyers are paid for judicial review cases, so that they are only paid if they reach the stage where a judge decides whether they are strong enough to go ahead to a trial. In practice, a significant number of cases – like this couple’s – never reach that stage because the local authority accepts that their decision is unreasonable, and backs down. Legal aid law firms are unlikely to be able to take on these sorts of cases, because of the risk that they will not be paid for them, leaving more people at risk of homelessness.
Another example Shelter gives is that of a mother of three young children who has fled domestic violence. She gets into rent arrears and her landlord starts taking steps to evict them. Thanks to legal aid, the lady is able to defend the possession proceedings, which gives her enough time to negotiate a settlement with the landlord that allows the family to stay in their home.
Under the new proposals this lady would not have received legal aid because the government wants to take away legal aid from cases that, like hers, are assessed as having a 50:50 chance of success when legal aid is granted. At the moment legal aid is still available in these cases if they are of overwhelming importance to the client, for example when it’s about having a roof over your head, like here. As Shelter points out, the problem with the government’s proposal is that often it is hard to tell at the beginning of a case whether the chances are more than 50:50 or not.