Cuts to legal aid leave tenants with rent arrears exposed to eviction

Inside a small room in the courthouse in Bury St Edmunds, a small town in the eastern English county of Suffolk, legal caseworker Lucy Davies was dealing with a military veteran facing eviction from his home after running up rent arrears of £12,000.

The stocky, bearded man in his mid-70s had just 15 minutes of free consultation with Davies before his housing possession case started earlier this month.

“Let’s see if we can establish any defence,” she said, peppering him with quick-fire questions to establish his circumstances. “Covid, basically,” he replied, adding that he had lost two relatives during the pandemic whose funeral costs he had to cover.

The case demonstrates the impact of austerity cuts by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that came into force in 2013. These made housing, along with other areas of civil law such as most welfare benefits and family cases, ineligible for legal aid, which was designed to help those who cannot afford to pay for representation.

Now only those facing imminent homelessness or serious housing disrepair have access to free legal support.

Following the government’s lifting last month of the remaining coronavirus measures in England designed to protect people struggling to pay their rent, many in the legal profession are concerned that more and more tenants will face eviction without legal advice.

Davies is one of a team of just two who offer free advice and representation to those in danger of 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 dubs “legal advice deserts”. These have spread across large areas of England and Wales — covering a population of 23.5m — since the funding cuts were implemented earlier in the decade.

A group of cross-party MPs, concerned by the combination of the legal aid cuts and the impact of the pandemic on low-income families, produced a report in October following six months of work.

The group, the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid, concluded that “more cases have ended up in court and with arguably more expensive outcomes for the state”. In housing cases, annual legal aid spending on advice dropped from £18.5m in 2012/13 to £6.5m by 2017/18.

Civil legal aid expenditure has fallen 34% in the past decadeAnnual spending on civil legal aid,  in real terms  ( 2019-20 prices, £m)G1883_21X

The House of Commons justice committee produced another damning report in July, calling for “fundamental changes” to civil legal aid. It found that spending on civil legal aid had fallen by 34 per cent over the past decade to below £800m annually in the year to March 2020.

“The cuts were done in a very crude fashion. The loss of early legal advice was perhaps the biggest failure of all,” said Bob Neill, a Conservative MP and the committee’s chair.

In its Spending Review at the end of October, the government announced it would make “millions more people” eligible for legal aid but gave no details. It has been conducting various reviews into legal aid that are expected to lead to more funding but has not said when the findings will be published.

The Ministry of Justice said there was a phone helpline for those “at risk of losing their home”, adding: “We will also shortly consult on how access to legal support can be improved.” Separately, it told the justice committee this week that it would start a pilot scheme offering early legal advice next year.

Back at their offices in the Suffolk Law Centre in Ipswich, Davies and Hanlon explain that it was key for tenants to receive early legal advice before possession notices were served. “If you get in at that point you might be able to nip it all in the bud and stop it from getting anywhere near a court,” Hanlon said.

Davies nodded: “Landlords do get it wrong. Sometimes you have cases [with specific legal points] glaringly obvious to us but no one has spotted it. That’s where legal knowledge comes to make a difference which can be the tipping point.”

Since January this year, the centre has advised 158 clients on housing matters, including one with £42,000 of arrears. It regularly receives calls from the neighbouring county of Essex, one of the “deserts” that has no provision.

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

Number of cases supported by legal aidEngland and Wales; annual and quarterly total volume (’000)G1883_21X

Simon Mullings, co-chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, said the government’s stay on evictions in England that ran from March to September last year had been helpful, he cautioned it had only deferred the impact on struggling tenants. “There is a reckoning now. That tide of support has gone out and there are a lot of problems being left on the beach.”

He warned that the past decade of austerity cuts had also eroded the safety net of social housing for those private tenants facing eviction. He said cash-strapped local authorities were taking “much tougher decisions” on who qualified for emergency housing.

Mullings said a 76-year-old man who was facing eviction along with his wife told him recently that he was “absolutely terrified” after the couple had failed to win any assurances from their council on what would happen to them if they became homeless.

The issue of emergency housing was very much on Davies’s mind as she emerged with the military veteran from court following a 20-minute hearing. The judge had issued the man with a possession order, leaving him 14 days before his landlord could start enforcement action to evict him from his home.

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


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