“It is time for the Legal Aid Agency to come clean about the failures of its contracting system.”
Good news! The newly-formed Suffolk Law Centre has won a legal aid contract in housing law. Suffolk very much needs this service. The county has around 750,000 residents, many of whom live in pockets of significant deprivation.
Even prior to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, Suffolk had been served by relatively few legal aid solicitors. These dried up as firms ceased legal aid work all over the country. Not a single legal aid housing practice remained in the whole of the county. An ‘advice desert
’ was left behind.
What does that mean for a low-income tenant who gets a claim form for possession of their home? Anyone who has worked in housing advice knows that contact by telephone, email and online chat just doesn't cut it: you really need to see someone, deal with the papers and, of course, go to the possession hearing.
So the launch of Suffolk Law Centre in March 2018 was excellent news. The centre tendered for a 2018 legal aid contract in housing and got it: finally, a chance to bring some free legal advice to people in the most desperate situations. Those at the centre have worked to bring in additional funding from the Legal Education Foundation to support the new post and make it a success. But there’s just one problem: to take up a legal aid contract, they need to recruit an experienced, full-time equivalent housing supervisor.1See 2018 Standard Civil Contract Specification para 2.10.
It isn’t just about being competent or managing staff. Nor does it matter how much support or supervision is available to help them. The legal aid contract requires the supervisor to have worked on billable housing cases for each of the last three years at a minimum. This must be evidenced by an identified list of the specific files the supervisor has worked on and the files must be available for ‘verification purposes’ by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). Files worked on for a previous employer may be included if – according to LAA guidance – they were ‘worked on within the past 12 months’.2See LAA Guidance on Civil Supervisor Requirements (September 2017).
It is evident that it is hard to meet the stringent requirements unless you have already been working (preferably in the same place) as a housing supervisor for a number of years. One of the side-effects of advice deserts is that the pool of qualified candidates is vanishingly small. Once lost, it becomes harder to restore provision of advice.
Despite advertising twice for a housing supervisor, Suffolk Law Centre has not had a single application from a qualified candidate.
Despite advertising twice for a housing supervisor, Suffolk Law Centre has not had a single application from a qualified candidate. It isn’t that all the housing supervisors have been snapped up by other firms. The centre remains the only organisation that bid for and obtained a housing contract in the county.
The problem lies in a model of legal aid supervisor requirements established many years ago, when the field of practising housing lawyers was so much more plentiful. Additionally, the requirements haven’t caught up with modern methods of remote working, easy connectivity and relatively fluid working patterns. This failing system could deprive thousands of people in Suffolk of desperately needed housing advice.
It is not just Suffolk Law Centre that has a problem: the LAA itself failed to generate enough bids for its 2018 contract round. It has tried to downplay the crisis by describing it as a ‘small number of geographic areas’ where it wants to ‘secure greater provision’ (‘Civil news: further tender opportunities for 2018 contract work
’, LAA, 23 April 2018). The reality is it failed to attract enough bids for housing and debt contracts in 39 procurement areas (see May 2018 Legal Action
4). In family, housing and debt, and immigration and asylum combined, it has failed to award contracts in a shocking 76 local authority areas.
It is time for the LAA to come clean about the reasons why its contracting system has failed on this scale. It simply cannot blame the legal aid ‘market’; it is the fault of current justice policy in manipulating the ‘market’ through an onerous and oppressive contracting regime.