As we grind slowly and tier-fully towards the end of a ghastly year, it is sobering to think about the plight of those living in precarious situations and desperately in need of good advice about how to deal with their housing problems. More than half of all local authority areas in England and Wales, covering 22 million people, do not have a single housing legal aid provider. Less than one quarter have more than one, so do not even think about choice and competition.
With the rise in unemployment and the cuts in income, many people are struggling to find decent housing, and finding it increasingly hard to resolve legal problems arising from disputes with landlords or local authorities. Many thousands of leaseholders, often with little or no spare income, are now facing potentially huge bills to deal with cladding and other renovation issues post-Grenfell. But how can they access the advice they need to understand and uphold their rights?
There are a number of reasons for the decline in legal aid. Cuts in fees from the Ministry of Justice of over 40% in real terms since 1998/99 are an important part of this. And unless your problem is directly about homelessness, severe disrepair or possession proceedings, you will not be eligible for legal aid even if you can find a provider willing to advise you.
As legal aid deserts grow – not just in housing but also in employment and various other aspects of law – so does loss of expertise.
Legal service providers are finding it increasingly hard to recruit staff to undertake this work and supervise legal aid contracts. The Government conducted a main tender exercise for housing legal aid contracts in September 2018 and have had to run four further ones since then as they are still struggling to get coverage.
Let us hope that 2021 is the year when we finally start to turn this problem around. We need to quickly as, despite the massive investment to try to save jobs, a tidal wave of employment problems is already building. In June and July, calls to the ACAS helpline to talk about redundancy rose nearly 170% compared with the same months last year, from more than 12,000 to more than 33,000 calls. 2021 will see these numbers rise dramatically and some employers taking advantage of the paucity of legal support to dismiss vulnerable employees in pursuit of cost savings. We need many more wise men and women to protect the kind shepherds who fall on hard times not just as a result of the pandemic but also the threat of no-deal Brexit tariffs on lamb, and of course other gifts, good and services.
This year we will all be doing our best to have a merry little Christmas even littler than when I started writing this blog. Let us hope next Christmas is a good one, without any tiers… (Sorry about that one!)