This third story of injustice is typical of the many accounts which the Bach Commission has received about the hardships that have been created because legal aid is no longer available for advice about entitlement to housing benefit.
The housing charity Shelter told us:
“We regularly see cases via our court duty desks where households are facing possession because their housing benefit problem wasn’t resolved early on, and so their rent arrears grew until their landlord lost patience and sought to evict them.
If free legal advice and advocacy were available at a much earlier stage, it would be easier to negotiate a mutually acceptable outcome and many of the knock-on costs to the court system, local councils and, most importantly, families themselves, could be avoided.”
An advice agency has told us this story of a potential injustice which they averted at the very last minute. It casts a vivid light on this very common problem. [A fictitious name has been given to the agency’s client].
Darren came to see us two days before he was due to be evicted from his council tenancy. He was a bus driver. He had had an accident at work following which he had lost his full time job. When he recovered he was only able to find part time employment which did not produce enough income to pay his rent. He did not know that he was entitled to housing benefit and was unable to access any advice that would have told him that.
Eventually, in despair, Darren went to his MP who referred him to us. We helped him apply for housing benefit and persuaded the court to adjourn the hearing. We then obtained a back-dated housing benefit payment which together with an arrears payment plan for the balance persuaded the landlord to withdraw the eviction, thus saving for Darren the very valuable asset of a council tenancy.
If we had not been able to help him there is no one else to whom we could have referred him. The local Citizens Advice Bureau could have dealt with the housing benefit issue but not the eviction proceedings. A housing solicitor could have dealt with the eviction in theory but not in practice because it could only be resolved by dealing with the housing benefit issue which is not covered by legal aid.
This very experienced advice agency comments:
“The number of tenants who are being evicted from tenancies in London has risen steadily since the introduction of LASPO, which coincided with various aspects of welfare reform which have reduced the state subsidy for housing costs. If these tenants could receive advice at an earlier stage then the trauma and wasted cost of court proceedings could often be avoided.”
This coincides with the evidence we received from the Housing Law Practitioners’ Association:
“HLPA members are particularly concerned with the removal of assistance for welfare benefit issues. The removal of legal aid for housing benefit means that clients have to wait for their landlord to threaten possession proceedings before they qualify for legal help. Even then, no assistance can be provided to resolve the housing benefit issues to resolve the consequential rent arrears problem and so the case will proceed to court.
At that point, legal aid can be provided to defend the possession proceedings, but still not to assist with the benefits issue. This inevitably leads to greater costs to the legal aid budget, the cost of court proceedings that could have been avoided and, in some instances, evictions which might have been averted had it been possible to resolve the benefits issue.
Prior to LASPO, assistance with welfare benefits could be provided to clients at a very low cost fixed fee. This preventative advice enabled welfare benefits issues to be dealt with swiftly, avoiding the need to put a vulnerable tenant through the stress of legal proceedings, and avoiding unnecessary costs for the landlord (both legal costs and lost rental income) and unnecessary use of court time.”
Is this justice?