I wrote at some length about legal aid, tenants rights and Grenfell Tower here (the third of the ‘myths’). Sara Stephens (my esteemed colleague – full disclosure) also explained the situation in a Legal Voice article here. But still it rumbles on, including from two people who really should know better, as quoted in this Guardian article.
The Law Society is having a push on access to justice and the effects of LASPO cuts, ahead of the promised review. This is a good thing and all power to their elbows. However, the President of the Law Society, Robert Bourns, is quoted as saying:
“There have been reports that tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts. If that is the case then we may have a very stark example of what limiting legal aid can mean.”
No, Robert, no. There are plenty of examples of people being unable to access legal aid for things that they used to be able to get it for in housing issues – transfers, allocations, dealing with housing benefit, damages claims for disrepair – but the matters that the Grenfell residents were seeking to raise and seeking legal help for were not covered by legal aid because there was no legal mechanism to do so. They were told they could not get legal aid, I strongly suspect, because there was nothing that a solicitor could do at that point.
Mr Bourns is wrong, but I think we can probably chalk it up to him or his PR person getting over-excited and over-egging it. Inaccurate and tasteless, perhaps, but not a venal sin.
However, the same cannot be said of the new Lord Chancellor, David Lidington. In an interview with on Law in Action, he announced:
“Under the legal aid arrangements, if you are a tenant and have concerns about safety issues, you can get legal aid to take action against your landlord.
“The Legal Aid Agency advice so far is that they have no record of the Grenfell Action Group (or tenants) having applied for legal aid.”
The Lord Chancellor, of course has an entire Ministry beneath him, some of whom might be expected to know stuff. And apparently also has the LAA looking things up for him. So it is rather more surprising that he should get this so badly wrong – and in such a way as would amount to something of a smear on Grenfell tenants.
Let’s take this step by step. Legal aid is only available for disrepair, and where there is a ‘serious risk of harm to health’. For disrepair, something has to be out of repair. For many, or indeed most, ‘safety issues’, nothing is out of repair.
It might not be up to standard, or a material that creates a risk, or an inadequate heating installation, or an inadequate fire escape route. It might be cladding that creates a fire risk. Or gas pipes not adequately contained. None of this is disrepair unless something is actually broken.
So, legal aid is not available for ‘safety concerns’. It is only available where there is an immediate risk to health due to something being broken, or not working as it was designed to work.
The MoJ know this. The LAA know this. Nonetheless, the Lord Chancellor was briefed otherwise and has trotted out what is pretty much a falsehood.
And then why go on about the LAA having checked for any applications by Grenfell residents? They wouldn’t apply anyway, a solicitor would. And the solicitor would only if there was a matter for which legal aid would be granted. Which, as we have seen, there wasn’t.
The Grenfell residents didn’t say they had been refused legal aid, they said they couldn’t get it. Which indeed they couldn’t. The Lord Chancellor giving voice to the LAA’s weasel worded arse-covering – an attempt to portray the residents as liars – was deeply disappointing attack politics.
I attempted, politely, to explain some of this to the Lord Chancellor on twitter. But I guess he isn’t checking his @s as I haven’t had a thank you.