The crises in housing and legal aid desperately need the government’s attention
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: Parliament (iStock_sedmak)
Legal Action loved Shelter’s welcome to the prime minister so much we chose it for this month’s cover. Housing wasn’t high on the agenda at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, but Michael Gove, the levelling up, housing and communities secretary, did speak at a fringe event on the ‘scandalously poor’ quality of social housing, particularly in some parts of the country:
There are people who are living in conditions which are overcrowded, there are people living in conditions afflicted by damp and other factors which hold back the flourishing of the children and the families who are raised in those homes.1Rachael Burford, ‘Michael Gove: state of social housing “scandalous” in some parts of country’, Evening Standard, 4 October 2021.
It is a welcome acknowledgement and one that continues to be highlighted by Daniel Hewitt of ITV News, who, over the past few months, has reported on some of the worst housing conditions I have seen in my 30 years as a housing lawyer. But what is the plan to improve them? Gove referred to people having a ‘stake in the future’ and ‘access to finance’, which suggests nothing much has changed and the focus is still on home ownership:
It is also, critically, the case that you won’t unlock supply of any kind unless you work with those who are the developers, the builders and the generators of that new stock.2See note 1 above.
If the plan is only to work with developers and builders, we will just end up with more of the same – one- and two-bedroom flats in mid- to high-rise buildings (many now with cladding issues) that maximise profit over housing need. Liz Davies and Nick Bano discuss the detailed housing proposals set out in a recent think piece by the Society of Labour Lawyers, which calls for the increase in supply of affordable homes as well as the abolition of Housing Act 1988 Sch 2 Ground 8 and the introduction of rent controls. There are many other suggestions for change, but the abolition of Ground 8 has been at the top of my bucket list for many years. It has never made any sense – policy-wise or merely in terms of fairness – that a person, especially in a housing association tenancy, can be evicted for just two months’ rent arrears, regardless of the cause. It makes even less sense now, as the impact of the pandemic starts to be realised.
Sharing an office with the London Legal Support Trust, I got to see the sheer amount of organisation that goes into the wonderful London Legal Walk. If you have never taken part before, I highly recommend it. As I wasn’t walking this year, I got given a very special task for the day: Robert Rinder’s minder! He joined Shelter last year as the charity’s first legal services ambassador but has supported the legal walk for a number of years. It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with him. The importance of legal aid formed a large part of our conversation. It also features heavily in this month’s issue, with both The Law Society and the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid producing reports on the sustainability of the sector. James Daly MP, a Westminster Commission vice-chair, said at the launch of the commission’s report:
The legal aid system is something to fight for and everyone in parliament should be interested in it.
Although not as visible as queues in petrol stations and empty supermarket shelves, recruitment and retention of legal aid lawyers is at crisis point. Jonathan Goldsmith wrote in the Law Society Gazette:
Should we call in the army as with the fuel supply problem, after giving soldiers training to provide legal advice in rural areas? Should we increase the number of visas for foreign judges and lawyers to come and help us with our shortages, as with the food industry?3Jonathan Goldsmith, ‘Will the army now be called out for legal sector shortages?’, Law Society Gazette, 5 October 2021.
He makes a good point. The heat maps from The Law Society evidence the dwindling supplier base – in some parts of the country, it is almost impossible to find a legal aid lawyer. The Westminster Commission report calls for an urgent and independent review. It is worth reading. The government’s proposed fixed recoverable costs (FRC) regime, outlined by the Housing Law Practitioners’ Association’s (HLPA’s) co-chairs, will only make things worse: ‘[T]he introduction of FRC will have a significant impact on our ability to continue to do legal aid work.’ The idea behind the proposal is to discourage litigation, which suggests an even playing field where a choice is reasoned. This is simply not the case. HLPA predicts: ‘Free legal advice would be unsustainable without the ability to recover reasonable costs (as opposed to FRC) in possession and other housing cases in relation to successful defences.’
Earlier this month, in the same week that the £20 cut to universal credit took effect, the prime minister was on holiday in a Spanish home that is usually rented out for £25,000 a week, and the lord chancellor and the foreign, commonwealth and development affairs secretary were ordered to share Chevening, the grace-and-favour 115-room mansion. Meanwhile, a safe, affordable, secure home seems to be out of reach for so many.
 
1     Rachael Burford, ‘Michael Gove: state of social housing “scandalous” in some parts of country’, Evening Standard, 4 October 2021. »
2     See note 1 above. »
3     Jonathan Goldsmith, ‘Will the army now be called out for legal sector shortages?’, Law Society Gazette, 5 October 2021. »

About the author(s)

Description: Sue James - author
Sue James is CEO of LAG. She was previously director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law...