It’s nearly five years since LASPO came into force. The effect has been devastating for our clients, and for access to justice generally. I see it weekly attending Brentford County Court. Housing advice is one of the few areas that remains in scope, but only when clients are homeless or court proceedings are in process. It’s now about crisis. People struggle to get help before their court date and I’m usually the first solicitor they see.
Rent arrears cases usually have a benefits issue at their heart. Welfare reform has meant that benefits are increasingly complex, especially with the roll-out of universal credit, but benefits advice is now out of scope for legal aid. I, let alone the clients, struggle to understand the new scheme. So where do I send them for help? And what about the social landlords who routinely take possession cases on mandatory grounds – after only eight weeks’ arrears? Surely it’s time for this to stop?
Last year, the Foodbank in Hammersmith dispensed 94,300 meals, almost double the 51,910 it distributed in 2016. The council was so concerned that it called a ‘summit meeting’ of key stakeholders to formulate a plan of action. Stories were heard of families going without food for the six-week wait before their first universal credit payments; of mothers with young children without nappies; of older girls without sanitary wear. I hear similar accounts at court: the tenant with only one light bulb who moved it from room to room at night; the mother evicted for bedroom tax arrears after the death of her child.
Court buildings are crumbling or even closing. They used to be at the heart of the community, dispensing justice with knowledge and understanding of their locality. People are now expected to travel huge distances to their hearings – in Cumbria, one of the courts on the housing possession court duty scheme (HPCDS) is a 2½-hour train ride from the Law Centre office. Yet at the same time, large sums are being spent on technology and consultants. Flexible court opening is to be piloted, but it seems with no flexibility for anyone, just longer hours for lawyers.
Meeting LAG’s founders recently (see December 2017/January 2018 Legal Action
10), I was inspired by their story. In 1971, they wrote an open letter to the Law Society Gazette
complaining about the ‘shambolic state of legal aid’ – a kind of call to arms. They were overwhelmed by the support, and a year later LAG was born. This motivated me to contact criminal defence solicitor Matt Foot, one of the founders of the Justice Alliance. I spoke of the threats to the HPCDS: how price-competitive tendering was being introduced and courts were being ‘bundled up’ together. He told me of the huge cuts to criminal legal aid, and the privatisation of the probation service and of the collection of court fines. ‘Surely,’ we agreed, ‘it’s time to take action?’
The Law Society and the Law Centres Network also believe it’s time. They have started separate challenges in the Administrative Court against the lord chancellor, both on issues that sit at the heart of access to justice.
Every legal aid lawyer reading this knows the effects of the cuts and the impact on our clients. Let’s challenge this poor decision-making, this attack on our clients and the work we do. Let’s look to Scotland, where the lawyers have said, 'No! Enough!' Make 2018 the year we step up our fight for access to justice. We have a new lord chancellor, it’s time for a new campaign.
So, 47 years on from the LAG founders’ letter, this is my call to arms (as sometimes it feels like a war against those who are poor and vulnerable). Look out for details of the demonstration we are planning and come along. It’s time to act, the time is now.