For my seventh story of injustice I am drawing on a theme which cropped up regularly in the evidence the Bach Commission received.
I refer to the injustices caused because the availability of legal aid for matters still in scope is still not readily understood, particularly by vulnerable people, such as children or the mentally ill.
In any event legal aid is not in scope for debt or difficulties over mortgage payments: only for possession proceedings (and even then not for advice on how to manage the debts that have caused the arrears).
A street homeless woman is able to go home
Ms Y had developed a mental illness. She became street homeless because she had not kept up her mortgage payments. She was brought to Harrow Law Centre by a community worker.
When the Local Authority refused the law centre’s request to house her they began judicial review proceedings. This led to her being placed in temporary accommodation.
They then made an application to the Court for the possession order to be overturned on the basis Ms Y was unrepresented in those proceedings and did not have the mental capacity to participate meaningfully in them.
The Court agreed and overturned the order. Ms Y was able to return to her home.
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group told the Bach Commission:
There is a general public misconception that there is no legal aid scheme at all! It begs the question: how many people don’t even try to seek advice because they think there is no one to turn to?
It is difficult for people to work out if their problem is covered by the legal aid scheme.
Clients bounce around from agency to agency trying to get help and, given the many barriers, often just give up without getting advice. It can be extremely difficult for people to find someone who can take on their case for many reasons.
Even if a case is covered by the legal aid scheme it can be difficult for people to produce evidence of their financial position so that work can be started on the case.
The Money Advice Trust told us:
LASPO brought the removal of a wide range of debt related issues (including insolvency, loans, credit card debts, overdrafts, utility bills, court fines and hire purchase debts) from the scope of the legal aid scheme.
There seems to be a lack of knowledge of the residual availability of legal aid in debt cases which has been highlighted with the Ministry of Justice by the Justice Committee’s report.
Our members are aware of a lack of awareness about what help is available among non-legal professionals coming into contact with vulnerable women, including the police. A Resolution member recently became aware that one of their respected local organisations simply believed that legal aid was no more – in fact at least 15 vulnerable people they support currently need and are eligible for legal aid.
Lack of public awareness, combined with no awareness campaign, means almost a resignation that there is no legal aid.
The Brighton Housing Trust said:
Access to Justice is about all advice provision and ideally it would be better to provide effective, good quality housing, debt and benefit advice at an early stage in order to save people having to use the court and tribunal processes.
In our organisation’s experience with the Legal Aid Agency housing advice contract we cannot advise now until a notice has been served and at that point there are less chances that you can stop homelessness, especially within the private rented sector. We need to move the advice to be prevention of homelessness.
This would then save not just the court time and money, but the time and money of the landlord – both private and social – as well as the time and money of Local Housing Authorities where a homelessness application has to be made, and most importantly the time, money and stress that people incur through these processes.
This still requires specialist advisers and we should be under no illusion that volunteers are able to fill this advice gap.
When a mentally ill woman is thrown onto the streets because she lacks awareness that legal aid might be available – and in any event it is only available to resolve one part of her problems – there is something seriously wrong.
Is this justice?