01/12/2006

And close the door behind you.

In what would, were all the world a stage, be a rather overdone bit of dramatic irony, the final publication of the LSC’s future legal aid funding arrangements took place yesterday, as did the showing of ‘Evicted’ on BBC1, part of the Beeb’s ‘No Home’ project.

‘Evicted’ was a really rather good documentary, following a few evicted families through homeless applications, temporary accommodation, B&Bs, sofa surfing etc., with all the effects on the kids shown clearly, missing GCSEs and school, fearing being taken into care and so on. All the familiar problems were on display: eviction through housing benefit foul-ups by the same Council; findings of intentional homelessness on eviction for arrears, regardless of the basis for the arrears; Homeless units failing to accept applications; unsuitable temporary accommodation many miles from schools and support networks, that is then changed at a moment’s notice. A depressing litany, which apparently took some people by surprise.

Many of the local authority’s actions looked to me to be potentially challengeable or reviewable. Indeed, Shelter took action on one family’s part. Viewed from that angle, the documentary was a clear demonstration of the need for civil legal aid.

Of course, the south west, where the documentary was largely made, is a notable ‘advice desert’, particularly for housing law. So, what is the LSC’s published route to the future going to do about this? Given that I have already pointed to the irony involved with a large neon arrow, readers will not be surprised to learn that the answer isn’t good.

They are setting the Legal Help fixed fee at a national rate of £170. All homeless work, apart from judicial review and Housing Act appeals, is conducted under Legal Help. There is currently a set fee, which has been based on a firm’s ‘average’ costs of Legal Help cases from a few years ago. Now there is a set fee of £170, which is roughly 2.5 hours billable work at standard legal aid rates. Supposedly this is a notional national average. It looks to me like a significant cut.

I have heard of current Legal Help rates for firms I know of varying between £250 and £500, and Law Centres at about £210 or so. I would be delighted to receive comments from anyone in England whose firm does Legal Help at a rate less than £170 on the current scheme, because I can’t really see how this can be done. Perhaps this post will be flooded with comments, but I doubt it.

Dealing with homeless cases tends to be detailed, protracted and time consuming work. It is extremely difficult to do effectively under the current Legal Help system without running a loss (at least at my firms current rate). Call me Cassandra, but the future isn’t looking good and, given this juxtaposition, yesterday wasn’t a great day either.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

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