Housing legal aid providers in England and Wales are having to cover increasingly wide areas, and Jo Underwood is witnessing her colleagues starting to buckle under the increasing weight of their responsibilities.
I sit in my office and look in despair at the referrals that are coming in from Suffolk, having travelled across the entire width of Norfolk yesterday and knowing I need to go to Ipswich today. I think about how I’m drowning under the paperwork on the witness statements that need writing for cases from across the two counties and I know that recently I turned a client away from the Cambridge area and frequently the office turns away calls from Essex because we just can’t meet the demand. I am that barely visible, slightly lighter colour blob in Norwich, surrounded by a vast ocean of red, and I feel that distance every day. I know that we can only do what we can, but I feel like a drop in that ocean and I am so despondent knowing that many people are being made homeless without help.
So went the email from my Shelter colleague a few weeks ago. She is one of only two legal aid housing solicitors in Norwich – represented by the ‘barely visible orange blob’ just about showing in the expanse of red in the east of England on the recently updated Law Society map
showing the legal aid housing advice deserts. The data analysed by The Law Society shows that over half of all local authorities in England and Wales now have no provision for housing legal aid services.
Quite rightly, many articles about the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and the legal aid cuts have focused on the devastating impact on our clients and those who no longer have access to legal advice, but I have been reminded recently of how deeply legal aid housing solicitors are also feeling the effects. This is not only from a practice management point of view, but also on a personal and professional level, brought sharply into focus when they are the only housing solicitors in a vast advice desert.
My colleague in the Shelter office in Manchester is also feeling the pressure of trying to ensure there is a sufficient supply of legal aid advice to an impossibly large area. Manchester has more legal aid providers than Norwich, but the numbers are still insufficient to meet the need and local firms are closing or giving up legal aid work. He talks about the ‘stress of managing a complex civil litigation caseload with associated court deadlines in the context of increasing demand for our services’:
Problems of housing and homelessness are exacerbated by problems with universal credit and we need to do all this work alongside now covering extra court duty sessions (for housing possession proceedings) because of the closures of Bury, Bolton, Altrincham, Tameside and Oldham County Courts, now merged into Manchester County Court. The former provider for St Helens (which includes the closed court of Warrington) and Wigan County Courts no longer does legal aid work, so we are now also covering those.
The recent LASPO review was a bitter disappointment – a longed-for oasis in the desert, perhaps, that never materialised. It simply served to reveal even more starkly the huge disconnect between the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) theory and the legal aid practitioner reality. Tinkering about the edges with further evaluation does not grapple with the obvious and urgent issues of how we are to keep legal aid practice sustainable and meet client need when the relatively small numbers of legal aid housing lawyers left are struggling to bear the heavy and heart-breaking burden of providing advice to increasingly large areas of the country.
The Shelter solicitor in Dorset (another ‘barely visible blob’ on the Law Society map) agrees. When she started at Shelter 14 years ago, there were five providers of legal aid housing advice in Dorset. Now there are two: Shelter and one other solicitor in a private practice. Dorset is made up of two local authority areas after a recent merger of eight councils. Many people, especially those who are disabled or elderly, or who might struggle to travel for other reasons, simply cannot get to her across a large area that has little or no public transport. The MoJ often points to online or telephone advice as a way of reaching those who can’t travel. This is an important resource but must be considered alongside the fact that it is often information rather than advice that is provided. Furthermore, there are those without internet access or who cannot use technology well enough to access this resource.
Not a one-and-done service
Even after one-off advice, many people will still need active casework and advocacy in order to resolve their problems or to ensure they have a voice in court proceedings. Solicitors sometimes need to see their clients face to face on multiple occasions – the first interview, the legal aid applications, to get witness statements signed, to name a few stages – perhaps even before the case has reached court. It is also kind and professional, not to mention ‘human’, to be able to provide a face-to-face service within a community and to build a relationship of trust with clients. Lady Hale commented in her speech to LAG’s Legal Aid at 70 conference in April this year that online information does ‘not make up for the lack of properly informed advice from a skilled person … who can not only give you advice as well as information, but can then set about doing something concrete to help – writing the letters, making the phone calls, filling in the court forms’.
Our Dorset solicitor feels the burden of being that skilled person in an advice desert:
It is demoralising to know that for every person you do advise, there are many more who don’t get that help.
The volume of work is not manageable and there is a huge amount of unmet need. It is demoralising to know that for every person you do advise, there are many more who don’t get that help. There is nobody else to refer people to, so you feel a constant pressure to take more work and help more people. One of the key motivators for being a legal aid lawyer is helping people and when you can’t do that it is hard.
She also comments with frustration on how noticeable it is that poor or unlawful behaviour from local authorities or landlords becomes even worse when there are no housing advisers to provide checks and challenges. When injustice is left unchallenged, the outcome is that people are made homeless or languish in substandard accommodation.
The Shelter solicitor in Newcastle delves further into the travel-related problems of managing a legal aid contract in the middle of an advice desert: ‘It is a source of immense frustration that we cannot get to clients and they cannot get to us because we are tied to a geographical location by our contract.’ Legal aid contracts require the legal help forms to be signed at the office where the contract is held, unless there are particular reasons for travelling out to see a client or accepting an application by post.
Newcastle is unfamiliar and can be intimidating for people in crisis who don’t live in the city. We have a poor and very expensive public transport system, so it is not surprising that we rarely see clients from the rural parts of Northumberland, or from Middlesbrough, Peterlee or County Durham. This does not mean they do not have a need for our service: it just means they cannot get to us.
The Legal Aid Agency provides the option of setting up ‘outreach services’ so that forms can be signed elsewhere. However, this is perhaps more of a mirage than a real solution, as the Newcastle solicitor says:
Outreach is hard to set up. If you can demonstrate the need to the LAA numerically, then you can get a contract to perform outreach services. The problem that we have for large rural areas is that there is nowhere that people can go for advice (and be turned away), so how do you demonstrate the need, how do you collect the numbers?
The Shelter solicitor in Plymouth is faced with the reality that even if setting up an outreach location were an option, it would not quell the imposing sandstorm of advice need that blows in from Devon and Cornwall. As well as all the housing case queries that come into the office each day, the Shelter solicitors in Plymouth cover the court duty desk in Barnstaple – a four-hour round trip – and also in Torquay – an hour each way. If a court session results in cases that need further work, they have to do that work remotely or accept more long journeys. Public transport across these vast stretches is unreliable or too expensive for clients. They may well need to prioritise paying some money each week towards rent arrears or to cover a shortfall between housing benefit and rent, and on a low income absolutely every penny counts. Diverting money to travel costs to see a solicitor is impossible when clients are dealing with stark choices about whether to pay the rent or feed their children.
The only other legal aid housing providers in the area are one firm in Exeter and one solicitor for the whole of Cornwall.1Currently recruiting - see here.
Distressing complications arise when there is no nearby solicitor to refer to, as demonstrated by a recent case involving a couple needing separate advice on the ending of a joint tenancy. Both tenants were vulnerable and lacked capacity, but due to a conflict of interest, the office was only able to act for one of them. The other had to manage without the benefit of legal advice and representation.
When I visited our Plymouth office earlier this year, my colleague left at midday to embark on another four-hour round trip to Penzance for a best interests meeting for a highly vulnerable client, whom she also had to visit at other times at a secure unit in Gloucestershire. These long journeys create time when work can’t be done and other clients can’t be seen, but they have had to become routine for my colleague, who accepts the situation with masses of good grace, patience and a determination to carry on despite the challenges of legal practice in an advice desert.
In my experience of legal aid lawyers, this determination is deeply ingrained and so we are a hardy lot, largely undaunted by having to navigate difficult terrain. However, the expansion of these areas barren of housing advice is increasingly concerning, and my colleagues – like many other legal aid housing lawyers – are unable to stretch themselves any more thinly to cover them. The legal aid system is already broken. Urgent action must be taken to fix it and bring life back to the advice deserts before the lawyers also break.
On 30 July 1949, the Legal Aid and Advice Act received royal assent. The Act introduced the civil legal aid scheme the following year and updated the provisions for criminal legal aid in the Poor Persons Defence Act 1930. Legal Action is publishing a series of articles to mark the anniversary. LAG would like to thank Garden Court Chambers for providing a grant to support the publication of these articles.