Legal aid cuts leave tenants with rent arrears at risk of eviction

In a small room in the courthouse in Bury St Edmunds, a small town in the county of Suffolk, in the east of England, legal assistant Lucy Davies was dealing with a military veteran threatened with eviction from her home after have accumulated rent arrears of £ 12,000.

The stocky, bearded man in his early 70s had just 15 minutes of free consultation with Davies before his home ownership affair began earlier this month.

“Let’s see if we can establish a defense,” she said, sprinkling him with quick questions to establish her situation. “Covid, basically,” he replied, adding that he had lost two loved ones during the pandemic for which he had to cover the funeral costs.

The case demonstrates the impact of the austerity measures of the Conservative-Liberal-Democratic coalition government that came into effect in 2013. These measures have made housing, as well as other areas of civil law such as most social benefits and family matters, ineligible for legal aid, which was designed to help those who cannot afford to pay for representation.

Now only people facing imminent homelessness or a serious housing problem have access to free legal assistance.

Following the government’s lifting last month of the latest coronavirus measures in England designed to protect those struggling to pay their rent, many lawyers fear that more tenants will be evicted without legal advice .

Davies is part of a two-person team providing free advice and representation to those facing eviction in Suffolk. Until she started working with her colleague, James Hanlon, in Ipswich in 2019, the county was one of what the Law Society called “deserts of legal advice.” These have spread across large areas of England and Wales – covering a population of 23.5 million – since funding cuts were implemented at the start of the decade.

A group of multi-party MPs, concerned about the combination of cuts to legal aid and the pandemic’s impact on low-income families, produced a report in October after six months of work.

The group, the Westminster Legal Aid Commission, concluded that “more cases have gone to court and with arguably more costly outcomes for the state”. In housing cases, annual legal aid expenditure on counseling increased from £ 18.5million in 2012/13 to £ 6.5million in 2017/18.

The House of Commons justice committee produced another damning report in July, calling for “fundamental changes” to civil legal aid. He revealed that spending on civil legal aid had fallen 34% over the past decade to less than £ 800million a year until March 2020.

“The cuts were made very rough. Perhaps the biggest failure of all was the loss of early legal advice, ”said Bob Neill, Conservative MP and committee chair.

In its spending review in late October, the government announced it would make “millions more” eligible for legal aid, but gave no details. He has conducted various reviews of legal aid that are expected to lead to more funding, but has not specified when the findings will be released.

The Justice Department said there was a hotline for people “at risk of losing their homes,” adding: “We will also consult shortly on how access to legal assistance can be improved. “. Separately, he told the justice committee this week that he would launch a pilot program offering early legal advice next year.

Back at their offices at the Suffolk Law Center in Ipswich, Davies and Hanlon explain that it was essential that tenants received legal advice before notices of possession were served. “If you get in at this point, you might be able to nip it all in the bud and keep it from approaching a court,” Hanlon said.

Davies nodded, “The owners are wrong. Sometimes you have cases [with specific legal points] blatant to us, but no one spotted it. This is where legal knowledge comes in to make the difference, which can be the tipping point. “

As of January this year, the center has advised 158 clients on housing issues, including one with £ 42,000 in arrears. He regularly receives calls from neighboring Essex County, one of the “deserts” which is not supplied.

Richard Miller, chief justice officer at the Law Society, agreed: “There is a real concern that legal aid is being given too late in the process when things have escalated. “

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Simon Mullings, co-chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, said the government’s suspension of evictions in England from March to September last year had been helpful. “There is an account now. That wave of support has died down and there are still a lot of problems on the beach. “

He warned that the past decade of austerity cuts had also eroded the social housing safety net for private tenants threatened with eviction. He said cash-strapped local authorities were making “much more difficult decisions” about who qualified for emergency housing.

Mullings said a 76-year-old man who faced deportation with his wife recently told him he was “absolutely terrified” after the couple got no assurances from their advice on what would happen to them. ‘they were becoming homeless.

The issue of emergency housing was very much on Davies’ mind as she walked out of court with the military veteran after a 20-minute hearing. The judge had issued the man a taking possession order, giving him 14 days before his owner could take coercive action to evict him from his home.

After giving her debt counseling options in the last few minutes before her next client arrived, she advised him, “You need to contact the counsel today. “

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