24/01/2015

Just because you are paranoid…

… doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.

The MoJ and Legal Aid Agency have put out a leaflet on Legal aid and “Help for people at risk of losing their home“. The trouble is that it doesn’t mention, anywhere, at all, not even in little small print, that tenants facing possession proceedings can seek face to face advice from a solicitor. Instead, all requests for help are channelled to the LAA phone line.

Now, while mortgage possession cases might have to go via the telephone gateway (due to an entirely arbitrary reclassification of such cases as ‘debt’ matters, just to give the phone line something to do), tenant possession cases can be funded as face to face cases from the get go, with no phone line involvement. Strangely enough, the LAA leaflet doesn’t mention that, while at the same time, the LAA announces that fewer housing matter starts have been used than was expected.

Of course, this dodgy advice leaflet might be an accident. I have asked the MoJ. But answer came there none.

[Given the comments, here and on twitter, can I just make absolutely clear that nothing I said above is intended, or actually does, reflect in any way on the quality of advice provide by the phone advisors, or indeed whether there should be a phone advice service. As for the mandatory ‘debt’ thing, as I said in the comments below, ‘the point about mortgage possession being given ‘mandatory’ telephone gateway status was that the ‘new’ gateway had to have something reserved to it. This was a political and policy decision’. It had nothing to do with whether this work was ‘better’ dealt with by the phone gateway, or about generating work for the gateway – which, I have been assured, had and has no shortage. The point about mandatory status was to lay down the marker that this was the trajectory for all civil legal aid. Now if someone wants to give me an argument about why this would be a good thing, come and have a go.]

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.

14 Comments

  1. Daniel

    This is a disgraceful document. But nothing surprises me with the MOJ/LAA now….

    Another problem is that the capital threshold limits are so low for getting Legal Aid (£100,000 mortgage disregard, £100,000 equity disregard (some more for pensioners)) that most won’t meet the financial eligibility criteria anyway even if on a passporting benefit.

    I currently have a client on guaranteed pension credit but deemed ineligible for Legal Aid because the LAA have used a website called Zoopla to massively overvalue her property. Of course them using Zoopla may just be an accident…….

    Reply
    • Giles Peaker

      Well mortgage possession cases do have to go through the phone centre. That is obligatory. But not tenant possession cases…

  2. TJ

    Whilst the use of ‘Gateway’ reference numbers for ‘Debt’ cases is mandatory (and makes no sense in the context of the scheme as a whole), this was not ‘just to give the telephone line something to do’ and to suggest that is the case devalues the service that the Civil Legal Advice Lines offer.

    Having staffed the Civil Legal Advice Lines before the 2013 and since, the service is a vital means for some of the most vulnerable in society to obtain legal advice.

    I have a number of ‘telephone’ client’s who either are agoraphobic or depressed and don’t leave there home, or who would never dream of ‘visiting a Solicitor’ due to the fact that they a) don’t consider their case to be ‘legal’ and therefore a Solicitor can’t help; or b) because they don’t feel as though they can walk into a busy office environment and speak to someone in a suit.

    The derogatory manner in which the Advice line is treated by some serves no-one. I can promise you that, for our part, the staff are no less well trained, the advice is just as good and the clients stay just as housed as the ones who walk in off the street.

    The lines themselves are just as busy as before the Gateway code scheme and didn’t need the perceived ‘boost’ from handing out referral codes; quite the contrary.

    In addition, if a Client has a matter which is deemed not suitable for telephone advice (i.e where a legal aid certificate is required for court proceedings) the Advice Lines refer to face to face providers in the client’s area.

    It would therefore be beneficial to build relationships with such providers rather than (reading between the lines) making assumptions about the value of the kind of work they do.

    I would also add that the existence of Civil Legal Advice has not altered our ability to fill our face to face contract matter starts either.

    Aside from the above, I agree that the MOJ should publicise ALL Legal Aid Services much more effectively; if they won’t, that just leaves us to all work together to plug the gaps doesn’t it, no matter how we provide our service.

    Reply
    • Giles Peaker

      TJ

      The post wasn’t about the quality of the advice line, though I did enjoy your implied threat that the Advice line staff won’t refer to solicitors who are rude about that service.

      I was on committees with MoJ when the last minute decision to to re-christen mortgage possession as ‘debt’ and make it mandatory to use the telephone gateway was made by the MoJ & LAA (LSC as it was). There was no basis in practice, in law, or in need for it to be mandatory. The reasoning was quite simply that the Gateway should have something, anything, reserved to it.

      Of course, the very existence of a ‘mandatory’ area suggests the direction of travel would be to make all civil legal aid go through the gateway, with face to face by referral only. This leaflet is in line with that.

      The LAA and MoJ have consistently failed to publicise the remaining elements of civil legal aid, despite it being demonstrable that much of the client base thought ALL civil legal aid had been done away with (arguably itself a result of MoJ press briefing). Where face to face advice and representation is still available, without having to take a wholly unnecessary trip through the Gateway, such as tenant possession cases, this should be publicised.

  3. Nathan

    Of course the ‘LAA phone line’ as the website, are, a lot of the time, unable to even determine which area of law should cover any particular topic, that is probably because it isn’t a legal advisor dealing with the triage of the call.

    I suppose in cases of housing law possessions it should not be as difficult to determine that possessions falls under housing, that said again though, there can be borderline cases which might be better dealt with under public law wider provisions, but again, if you have not got a legally qualified advisor triaging the call, even when you tell them directly, they are not guaranteed to comprehend which area of law specialist is needed.

    All of that before you receive any legal advice at all. It was obvious that those
    relying on legal aid were at a disadvantage, that was before 2010 let alone now….

    Reply
  4. Kellie

    It is concerning that you feel that the CLA gateway is having mortgage possession cases, just for something to do. I used to work on the CLA contract as an advisor and the quality of our work is just as good as our face to face services. All of our CLA staff are extensively trained, some are qualified solicitors and most at least have a law degree, or 5+ years of experience.

    Although I do not agree that leaflet should have implied that you can only get advice from CLA, I do believe that CLA is a good place for clients to go when they don’t know where else to go. If a CLA paralegal or solicitor (yes, there are some) feels the client will benefit from face to face advice, or if the client prefers it, the advisor will refer them.

    The CLA gateway is not a bad idea and there are a surprisingly high number of clients that want face to face referrals that cannot get them. Face to face providers can, to a certain degree, choose to reject cases if there is no capacity to take on the case, something that CLA cannot do. If you get 5 street homeless clients a week, you have to deal with them. When I was on a CLA contract, I found it extremely difficult to get a client who was being gatekept, for example, an emergency appointment to undertake a JR within the next few days, let alone that day. In a 4 hour shift, you could get up to 5 or 6 cases that were then your clients and the quality of the work never suffered.

    Face to face services can choose not to take on a matter if the service is stretched, and this is not a luxury afforded to CLA.

    Have you ever spent time on a CLA contract or aware of how CLA works in practice. I’m sure that you would be welcome to come and sit in an office and see just what CLA does.

    In terms of the point of your blog, rather than the implications from it, it is not acceptable that the MoJ has implied you can only get advice from CLA

    Remote advice isn’t perfect, but neither is face to face.

    Reply
    • Nathan

      I’d certainly argue that it should not matter what mode of service you recieve phone or in person, public or private funding, you should recieve the same quality of advice. I suppose the difference in having person to person advice could potentially make alot of difference to the individual experience taylor made to any client or potential client needs, for obvious reasons notwithstanding equality duties of the service provider.

      The biggest issue with the LAA/CLA, not specifically related to housing is obviously the scope of advice and or representation available. To have a fairer system public funding should.be available for all scope claims no matter the subject matter but with more focus on merits and proportionality of cost as a pose to large areas of subject matters being abandoned compeltely leaving the insufficient hole plug being left to pro bono. Of course post 2010 no matter which political party you vote for (or not) legal aid having been stripped further under civil matters is, at least in my eyes, a serious abrogation of duty. Not only that but the attempt to water down JR rights and funding on top of that is clearly a contempt.

    • Giles Peaker

      Kellie

      Again, this was not about the quality of CLA advice. I said nothing about that at all. The point about mortgage possession being given ‘mandatory’ telephone gateway status was that the ‘new’ gateway had to have something reserved to it. This was a political and policy decision. Both you and TJ suggest that is wasn’t required because there was plenty of work anyway. To which I can only say exactly! So what is the point of making mortgage possession mandatory? A moment’s thought makes the answer clear – and it is a trajectory that this leaflet follows.

      So, should all housing civil legal aid prospective clients require endorsement and referral by the telephone gateway before they see a solicitor who can actually act in their case (given that scope requires possession proceedings)? No matter how lovely you all may individually or even institutionally be, that is complete and utter madness.

    • Kellie

      Again, I completely agree with your point that the leaflet is bang out of order and should not be misleading, which it is. I don’t think anyone who knows anything about legal aid and has a social bone in their body would disagree, but again, your implication that a solicitor “who can actually act in their case” is somewhat patronising. If court proceedings are scheduled, CLA always try and get them a face to face solicitor/paralegal to act on their behalf. However, there are many legal aid black spots throughout the country where there are no providers of legal aid work – Milton Keynes being one. The council are appalling with homelessness and the only people the client can come to ask for help with their ridiculous and completely unlawful decisions (or lack their of) is CLA.

      If you genuinely were not having a dig about the quality of CLA, which I still feel is there, then at least this has opened up a discussion as to the benefits of CLA, and not just the negatives that many face to face solicitors seem to see.

      One final note before I try and get my clients in order before annual leave: CLA cannot attend court and cannot issue JR proceedings (where they are possible thanks to more attacks by Dave and his cronies) but that is the only difference. I have never, ever had a problem with tailoring my advice and my clients have never, ever had an issue that they will only speak to me over the phone.

    • Giles Peaker

      Kellie

      A ‘solicitor who can actually act’ was not a dig, it is strictly factual. As you say, CLA can’t do proceedings.

      No argument on the legal aid blackspots, something we have bewailed, and which will only get worse (the number of housing providers is dropping quickly. In some areas, like part of Suffolk, there are none. At all. But elsewhere, good face to face firms will always be very busy – and many ran out of matter starts without being able to get more, hence lobbying by HLPA, which has just resulted in this change of position by MoJ/LAA.

      While I can understand your frustrations in trying to get referrals (heaven knows I face the same in trying to refer for benefits advice and help), there are plenty of reasons why it might be hard that aren’t about the solicitors being sniffy about CLA.

      The overall issue – and what my post was about – is the political and policy aim of the MoJ/LAA to make the ‘gateway’ obligatory across the board. This is something face to face providers find a ridiculous and worrying prospect. And that is an entirely separate matter to any judgment on the quality of CLA advice. It could be the most wonderful advice in the history of the world ever and mandatory phone gateway would still be a ridiculous and worrying prospect.

  5. Gavin

    We hold face to face housing contracts and are one of specialist housing/ debt providers on the CLA line. Where there are court proceedings we would always refer to a local provider but a bit like Kellie we sometimes struggle to get someone to take a case at short notice. We have a high proportion of homelessness cases that face to face provider wont touch because ‘they dont have capacity’ these cases are usually difficult cases but would fall just short or be boderline whether they would go to a certificate.
    I am not sure where the mortgage cases are going but only around 1 in 10 calls are mortgage cases. I am not sure whether this is because there are less mortgage possession claims being issued in court or whether people are just not seeking advice face to face or through the telephone.

    Reply
    • Giles Peaker

      Hi Gavin

      Well if the cases won’t go to certificate on merits, I’m not sure what you’d expect the solicitor to do, to be honest. They can’t use a legal help. And there is no ‘borderline’ any more, scrapped under LASPO. Has to be better than 50%, for definite. So you are effectively trying to refer unfindable cases where the solicitor couldn’t do anything anyway?

      Interesting on the mortgage cases. They have fallen as a number and a proportion of possession claims, but there is also the worrying prospect of people not knowing that they can get advice, or thinking legal aid has been ended…

    • Gavin

      Hi Giles.

      We have calls that come through with imminent possession proceedings or where a local authority are clearly in breach of a legal duty to take a homeless application. Because we are unable to provide representation or it needs a solicitor to bring judicial review proceedings, we will refer the client to a local provider at short notice.

      Unfortunately it is often the case that the local provider can’t take the cases because they ‘do not have capacity’, which is one of the few grounds that a legal aid provider can refuse a case. These cases are not borderline and are in scope for housing advice. Our casework staff are all very experienced and all our housing solicitors are required to cover the telephone service at some point and all our dedicated telephone staff have experience of delivering face to face legal advice.

      With regards the mortgage possession figures and other debt cases, only about 14 – 15% of our telephone cases are debt cases. I am not sure whether this is the same for other providers, but this figure has been relatively consistent for some time so I have no reason to believe differently. When the telephone contract was tendered, the LAA estimated that 62% (6500 of the 9000) estimated calls allocated for each of the 5 housing/ debt contracts would be debt case, presumably because legal aid advice on mortgage possession could only be accessed through the ‘telephone gateway’. We are operating on about a third of the estimated 9000 calls and like I have already mentioned only 14-15% are debt cases.

  6. David

    I have used the telephone service on two occasions, one was redirected to Shelter who gave excelling advice on how I could defent myself (Landlord had not told me about deposit protection and not issued PI).

    On the second instance I was directed to what seemed to me to be a firm designed to get the funds. All they did was tell me to find a local solicitor who dealt with housing issues. Completely useless. I was later told by a partner of the firm that the telephone advisor is typically absolute beginner and would get £7 for the call.

    Reply

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