Authors:Tim Baldwin and Dianne Cowie and Laura Coyle
Last updated:2024-06-13
Reset legal aid to deliver housing reform agenda
Marc Bloomfield
Description: HLPA
As we write, the UK will head to the polls on 4 July 2024. According to Ipsos, in April 2024 housing was seen as the fifth most important issue facing the country.1Economy still seen as the most important issue facing Britain’, Ipsos news release, 30 April 2024. Its political salience means the parties will be setting out their stalls to woo the electorate on something set to feature prominently within manifestos and legislative plans for the incoming government. However, if reforms are to deliver, the next government cannot afford to overlook the provision of legal aid and legal services.
Housing reform has been on the government’s agenda for some time, but has been bogged down by parliamentary wrangling. With the election called earlier than expected, the already watered-down Renters (Reform) Bill was not part of the legislative ‘wash up’. It will no doubt be revisited, resurrected and potentially reimagined by an incoming government.
The pledge to reform renters’ rights was made by Theresa May in 2019, featured in Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto and was working its way through parliament under Rishi Sunak. Labour criticised the government’s concessions and has committed to banning no-fault evictions. Meanwhile, in a speech in February 2024 to the Chartered Institute of Housing, Keir Starmer set out plans to increase housing supply (including social housing), tackle disrepair for tenants, and increase support for people struggling to pay their mortgages.
It is welcome that there is a focus on protections for private renters, although disappointing that they have yet to materialise. The proportion of households renting privately has doubled in recent decades, with the sector now meeting the needs of many low-income families no longer able to access social housing. However, standards of rented accommodation are too often poor. Housing is the foundation on which lives are built, but it needs to be affordable, decent and secure. This demands adequate protections for tenants and the enforcement of their rights.
Such protections come not only from legislation but also its application. Just as planning reforms to boost supply need town planners, new renters’ rights, if they are to be meaningful, will require a properly resourced legal aid system. However, the next government will not be starting from a good place: the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 made devastating cuts to legal aid, and together with the lack of any increase in rates in civil legal aid, it is well known that there are fewer practitioners providing such services.
Legal aid can make the difference between someone living on the streets and them keeping their home. Yet the cuts have led to legal aid deserts where those eligible cannot access justice due to the lack of providers in their area. While people can access advice from other providers – and since the pandemic there has been much more cross-area advice provision – this requires solicitors’ firms to have the necessary capacity to meet need.
However, practitioners are working at full capacity. It is little wonder, with such pressures, including downward ones on wages, that younger generations are not joining the profession. To make matters worse, we are also witnessing dedicated advisers leaving an industry that can too easily have a negative impact on people’s well-being.
Added together, this means those providing legal aid services cannot keep up with demand or need. Even without additional reforms, some people eligible for help are not getting support or are having to proceed as litigants in person, which is adversely impacting an already struggling court system that is itself in urgent need of reform.
In fairness, there have been attempts to address some of the problems. The Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service allows for providers to offer advice at various stages to those whose homes are at risk. This includes early advice under legal help and at the point at which a notice is served, as well as at court. It is not means tested and the rates of remuneration remain low. Although it is beneficial to people who require advice and are not eligible for legal aid, it increases the proportion of lower-paid work undertaken. This makes it even harder for providers already struggling with reduced fees, places pressures on pay, which impacts on morale and attracting and retaining professionals, and ultimately undermines sustainable provision for those who need access to justice.
The new government will need a fresh approach. Rather than looking at access to justice as a cost, it should be viewed as an investment. The social costs of non-decent and insecure housing are considerable. The costs to backlogged courts can be seen on a daily basis. And the costs to people’s lives can be seen in every constituency.
Addressing these costs requires an adequately resourced legal aid system even without further reforms. Moreover, if these much-needed reforms are to be effective, they will have to go hand in hand with a reset in legal aid. Failure to do so will mean the rhetoric around housing reforms will ring hollow for millions of renters.
True and effective reform of the rental sector, both public and private, will need joined-up, cross-departmental thinking to deliver safe, secure and affordable housing. In addition to investment in greater provision, investment is also needed in legal aid to allow the courts to operate.
1     Economy still seen as the most important issue facing Britain’, Ipsos news release, 30 April 2024. »