The Law Society has published research showing that in a third of all areas in England there is now only one solicitor specialising in housing available through legal aid, and has said that denying legal advice and representation to people facing housing problems poses a risk. It has called on the government to review the situation.
At the time of a reduction of funding in 2013, the coalition government insisted that there would be help for those who do need advice and representation, but the Law Society said that this is no longer a reality.
The coalition government reduced funding to civil legal aid in order to save £350 million a year.
The government is right to say that last year over £1.5 billion was spent on legal aid, but that included criminal as well as civil legal aid. The amount available for civil law help, as opposed to criminal law, has been massively reduced.
In 2013, for example, BHT saw its funding reduced so that we could only take on 590 housing cases at our Brighton Advice Centre whereas before we could take on 1,450 cases. The sort of cases we could take on was also severely restricted.
It is really important that people have access to more than one solicitors practice when it comes to representation. Would it be right if an area as large as Brighton and Hove only had one doctors surgery, or if there was just one hospital for the whole of the Sussex, or just one school? Of course not.
One reason for the massive decline in the number of solicitors practices who will take on legal aid work is the huge cut to legal aid. Legal aid practitioners are not fat cat lawyers. I know from BHT’s experience of the long working hours, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, and their officers cannot in any way be compared to those seen on television programmes such as LA Law or The Good Wife.
The reality is that advice centres such as those BHT runs in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings require substantial subsidies from the organisation. But for how much longer will we be able to afford to do so? Yet at the same time we save national and local government hundreds of thousands of Pounds, if not millions, each year by preventing homelessness, and improving health by ensuring that homes are fit for human habitation.
Saving homes, preventing homelessness and saving lives: surely that is worth greater public investment?