Recent statistics and analysis produced by the Ministry of Justice for 2020-21 highlight the continuing impact of the Legal Aid Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 or ‘LASPO’ on legal aid and make for particularly bleak reading for anyone working in the legal aid advice or with a commitment to justice and equality.
There are various ways of measuring the decline of legal aid but the conclusion, whichever set of figures are used, is the same; that legal aid usage for housing files stands at a fraction of its 2011-2012 levels, around a tenth according to one set of figures.
As background, in 2012 particularly extensive cuts to legal aid were introduced and large areas of legal advice were removed altogether from the legal aid scheme, such as debt, and the majority of welfare benefits and assistance with transfer and allocations matters. A large number of smaller firms found themselves unable to sustain their legal aid work or their business as a whole and had to close. This led to the development of ‘advice deserts’ where large regions of England and Wales are without any housing legal aid advisers at all.
As the report states: ‘Over 80% of legal aid housing work volume is made up of legal help. The volume of legally-aided housing work halved between July to September 2012 and July to September 2013. The trend then fluctuated for around 18 months but since 2014 it has been falling.’
Despite numerous challenges and reports produced on the serious and wide-reaching impacts of low availability of legal aid, including the Bach Commission report in 2017, there appears to be no likelihood of legal aid being restored in the near future, especially not under the current government.
While it may be of some comfort to the Home Secretary, who has taken issue with ‘lefty lawyers’ that their profession and those they represent are being negatively impacted, it should be of deep concern to anyone in a democracy that access to justice, the right to a fair trial, and the rule of law are being simply washed away or seen as optional.
The Home Secretary’s above-mentioned comments in October 2020 about ‘lefty lawyers,’ do-gooders’ and how those ‘well-rehearsed in how to play and profit from the broken system [sic] will lecture us on their grand theories about human rights,’ followed a disappointingly familiar and deeply inaccurate theme, especially in light of the figures above. The Home Secretary would do well to note that ‘human rights’ are not just theories, they are law.
Of even more serious concern is the Home Secretary’s condemnation of England footballers taking the knee (an anti-racist statement) as ‘gesture politics’ and the subsequent refusal of both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to condemn or discourage fans from booing it. In the wake of the racist abuse directed at England players on social media Ms Patel and Mr Johnson then finally voiced disapproval, after doing nothing to prevent and effectively condoning a climate where it could take place.
Upon raising these issues and previous incidents of racism in the House of Commons, Zarah Sultana, MP for Coventry South, was told by Victoria Atkins, the Home Office minister to ‘lower the tone,’ in an apparently thoughtless reply which also featured the groundless assertions that any claims of racism would be ‘extraordinary’ and that the work of the current government is directed towards working together to tackle racism.
Taken together, there is an environment of damaged and decreasing access to justice and a government which is apparently vocal in its criticism of those dedicated to defending the more vulnerable members of society and oddly silent when it comes to challenging racism and injustice.
The important point to note is that, for the time being, and despite the decimation in recent years, legal aid is very much available, of course subject to some numerous caveats, merits tests scope and financial restrictions. Anyone with a housing issue who is on benefits or a low income, should seek legal advice as soon as possible in order to explore their eligibility for legal aid.
At Hodge Jones & Allen we remain committed to access for justice and can advise on a range of issues still covered by legal aid. The housing team in particular can advise and assist with a wide array of issues related to homelessness, housing conditions, possession, eviction, judicial review and discrimination.