Socialist Party
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17 March 2010

Legal aid in crisis

Cuts mean poorest people priced out of the legal system

"Do you think they'll evict me?" - this is the question I was asked recently at the County Court. I was the duty solicitor representing a housing association tenant who had 2,200 rent arrears. Usually in three hours I see between five and ten tenants faced with losing their homes.

Paul Heron, legal aid solicitor

The tenant in question was a lone parent and had three kids. Her income support had been stopped in October, this had acted as the first domino, and had now knocked down several others.

The problem had started when she was summoned by Jobcentre Plus to attend a back to work interview. She hadn't attended because the kids were ill. By not attending the interview her income support had stopped, and as a result of her claim closing, her housing and council tax benefit claims were also closed. She was getting by on tax credits and child benefit.

Despite making a new claim for income support it still hadn't re-started, and as a result the housing benefit hadn't started, despite the fact that her income was now so low she should have been entitled to the housing benefit. The housing officer from the housing association wanted a possession order.

After I spoke for the tenant, outlining all the problems, and a promise that we would look into the matter, the district judge agreed with our submission to adjourn the case for 28 days. The parting shot of the district judge was: " much for a fairer society!"

However, this is where the problem starts for legal aid lawyers. That day I agreed to see six new tenants to help them with their cases. Most of the possession cases heard that day were related to rent arrears, most stemming from benefit problems.

The tenant I represented faces losing her home. There is an income support problem, non payment of housing benefit, and most likely she has a liability order for non-payment of council tax.

Whilst the different problems are not particularly complicated, they will involve seeing the tenant, writing various letters, several phone calls, and maybe we might have to take the case to a social security tribunal in relation to the income support and housing benefit. Later we may need to go back to the county court with the possession case. All of this work on a fixed fee of 180!

A survey of law firms carried out by the recently launched Alliance for Legal Aid revealed that solicitors doing civil legal aid work are: "...being starved of cash to assist clients in desperate need." What that means for high street legal aid firms, and law centres is a slow death by a thousand cuts.

I have to balance the needs of tenants who are desperately poor, and desperately in need, against resources. Legal aid firms, particularly law centres have been starved of cash for years, in the last three-four years this has been particularly acute.

What that means for the law centre I work for is that our computers are over 12 years old. We operate month to month when it comes to wages. What financial reserves we had have been used a long time ago. Certain jobs have gone unfilled to cut costs further.

The system operated by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) is crazy. It allocates firms a number of 'matter starts' each financial year. Once a firm reaches its limit, it will have to turn clients away.

These cuts and constant changes by the LSC have led to legal aid deserts, firms going to the wall, cases being capped and poorer service for poor people.

The Alliance for Legal Aid was launched by the Legal Action Group, Legal Aid Practitioners Association, and the Law Centres Federation last month. It aims:

To raise awareness amongst the general public and charities of the importance of legal aid.

To lobby those responsible for legal aid to ensure they maintain a sustainable legal aid system that provides quality advice and representation to those who cannot afford to pay privately for legal services.

Whilst these aims are laudable, the strategy appears to focus primarily on further lobbying of ministers and civil servants. Socialists would accept this as a tactic in order to raise awareness, but it cannot be a strategy that can guarantee success particularly given that both Labour and Tories have already stated they will slash public funding.

It is essential as part of the campaign that the Alliance for Legal Aid orientates itself primarily to the trade union movement and working class organisations. As part of that strategy the organisers of the Alliance must take the campaign to save legal aid to the public sector unions particularly.

As part of the campaign it should urge solicitors to join and actively take part in their trade union, as the first step to organising as part of the generalised fightback to defend the public sector.