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Housing legal aid ‘on brink of collapse’, experts warn

Every single provider of legal aid for housing cases in England and Wales is making a loss, according to the Law Society

legal aid protest

Despite a decade of protests against legal aid cuts, access to legal support for housing cases has diminished. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Every single housing legal aid provider is making a loss leaving the civil sector on the ‘brink of collapse’, legal experts have warned.

A Law Society study found the average legal firm using legal aid to support housing cases recouped around half of their costs.

That had the knock-on effect of seeing junior staff leave for better pay and work-life balance as well as leaving solicitors who remain facing high levels of stress and burnout.

As reported by the National Audit Office last week, the strain means scores of people who need legal support to avoid eviction or settle other housing issues are less likely to be able to access support.

There has been a 9% fall in the proportion of the population in England and Wales within 10 kilometres of legal aid housing advice over the last decade.

“This vital research reveals the lengths providers have to go to keep housing legal aid afloat in the current environment – routinely working grossly excessive hours and cross-subsidising from other parts of their businesses,” said Law Society of England and Wales president Nick Emmerson.

“It’s therefore no surprise that we’re seeing providers exit the market because they can no longer sustain this approach. Those who remain struggle to attract younger people to legal aid work.”

Spending on legal aid has been slashed in the last decade with the Ministry of Justice cutting £728m off its £2.5bn bill in 2012-13 to spending £1.8m in 2022-23.

That is leaving an estimated 26 million people with no access to a local housing legal aid provider, the Law Society said.

The lack of access comes at a time when more renters are being hauled in front of courts after receiving a Section 21 eviction notice.

The government has promised to scrap no-fault evictions, as they are also known, by the next election but the number of renting households losing their home through the courts is on the rise.

A total of 9,457 households in England saw their homes repossessed by county court bailiffs last year, up 50% on 2022 levels.

In total, 26,311 households have been evicted in almost five years since the government promised to axe no-fault evictions.

With civil fees approximately half what they were 28 years ago in real terms, low-income tenants might not be able to afford to challenge evictions.

“At a time when the cost of living crisis is driving rising numbers of evictions and repossessions, the UK government needs to use its civil review to invest in legal aid now before it collapses completely,” added Emmerson.

“We urge the government to provide the civil legal aid system with the investment needed to ensure there is a future for this vital public service.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson previously told the Big Issue: “Our priority has always been to ensure legal aid is available to those who need it most – evidenced by the fact that in the last year alone, we have spent nearly £2bn helping people facing legal difficulties, including thousands of families and domestic abuse victims.

“This month alone, we announced proposals for a £21.1m pay boost for criminal legal aid lawyers and we have already increased most criminal legal aid fees by 15% – ensuring representation is available when needed.”

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