A fresh call for legal aid practitioners to bid for revamped housing contracts shows just how unviable the work has become – potentially leaving families struggling with rising rents, mortgage payments and debt without proper access to justice, the Law Society has warned.
The Legal Aid Agency has been tendering for new housing loss prevention advice service (HLPAS) contracts, which began in August. HLPAS will replace the existing housing possession court duty scheme, offering early legal advice on social welfare law matters before court as well as on-the-day advice and representation in court.
The tenders finally opened last November. However, last week, the agency revealed that it did not accept ‘compliant’ bids in 12 procurement areas, including Bedford, Crewe, Darlington, Hull, Liverpool, Teesside and Wigan.
Law Society president Lubna Shuja said the lack of bids showed that the work has become unviable for providers.
‘For many, this type of contract is becoming increasingly difficult to make this work financially. As a result, some are instead choosing to leave the legal aid market altogether,’ Shuja said.
‘We are really concerned that this could lead to less support being available for families at risk of losing their home at a time when we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. More and more people are struggling with rising rents, spiraling debt and mortgage costs. We already know from our advice desert maps that 24.4m people (41%) do not have access to a housing legal aid provider.’
Noting that the government’s review of the civil legal aid market is not due to report until 2024, Shuja called for ‘an immediate injection of funding into the system to prevent it from collapsing’.
The Ministry of Justice has finally set the ball rolling on its major review of the civil legal aid sector. However, the timetable suggests any measures to save the shrinking sector may not be implemented until late 2024 at the earliest, in the likely run up to the next general election.
Dominic Raab’s department announced today that the review will commission an external economic analysis of the civil legal aid market to better understand how people access funding and support.
The ministry said the review would encompass all categories of civil legal aid provision, with in-depth analysis into areas including family, housing, mental health, education, discrimination and immigration. It will consider the value for taxpayers’ money of future policy options and take into account wider budgetary restraints on the department.
As well as an assessment of how such systems work in other comparable countries, the review will also include publications of further data on how civil legal aid is delivered across England and Wales to help inform future decisions.
The final report will be published in 2024. ‘Once complete, the government can consider options from the review for moving to a more effective, more efficient and more sustainable system for legal providers and the people who rely on legal aid,’ the department said .
However, the Law Society and Bar Council immediately voiced concern about the timetable.
According to government figures, there were 1,363 providers with a civil contract in March 2022. There were 2,134 providers in April 2012 – a year before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force. LASPO removed vast areas of law – such as family housing, immigration, employment and welfare benefits – out of scope for legal aid. The LAA has repeatedly had to plug gaps in advice