Publicly funded housing legal aid services are not available in more than half of the local authorities in England and Wales, leaving tenants vulnerable, according to a Law Society analysis.
For 2019, the Law Society has published a new interactive map which identifies housing ‘legal aid deserts’ across the country, with 184 local authorities having no provider, and 81 having just one. In Cornwall, for example, the one firm offering housing legal aid serves a population of half a million people, over an area of 1,300 square miles.
Law firms have been withdrawing from legal aid work due to “catastrophically” low rates of pay, according to Law Society president Christina Blacklaws. Fees paid by the government for this work have not increased for the past 20 years – equating to a 41% reduction in real terms.
Yet this service is essential, Blacklaws argues, particularly as it is no longer available for early advice and people can only access it when their situation is “critical”.
She added: "People facing homelessness or trying to challenge a rogue landlord increasingly can't get the expert legal advice that they desperately need.
"More than 21 million people live in a local authority without a single housing legal aid service, leaving pensioners, families with young children, people with disabilities or on low incomes all struggling to access the legal advice they are entitled to when they are at their most vulnerable.
"Anyone trying to resolve a serious housing problem is likely to need face-to-face professional advice urgently – if the nearest legal aid solicitor is in the next county, they might as well be on Mars." Among the most common housing issues are homelessness, harassment, eviction due to rent arrears, and disrepair so bad it is hazardous to health.
Generation Rent director Dan Wilson Craw said: “Renters’ rights are slowly improving, with more grounds for tenants to claim back rent from criminal landlords.
“But the tenants most at risk of exploitation are also unlikely to have the means to pay for legal advice. It is a scandal that cities with large private renter populations like York and Hull have no legal aid provision, and it’s not much better in places with only one provider, who could easily turn you away.”
The Law Society argues that having just one provider serving a large area causes a range of problems, as the firm may not have sufficient staffing capacity, or may have to turn down a client due to a conflict of interest. In addition, anyone on an income low enough to be eligible for legal aid, let alone in rent arrears, is unlikely to be able to afford to travel large distances to see a solicitor.
Working people and families, or carers, may face huge logistical challenges too, especially if they are in rural areas with poor public transport.