What does the increase of ‘Legal advice Deserts’ mean for tenants?

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In a recent Financial Times article yet another consequence of the increasing size of ‘Legal Advice Deserts’ in England and Wales was illuminated, this time in the area of housing. The lack of legal aid for tenants and the financially vulnerable has left many fearing homelessness due to running rent arrears and complications with landlords arising from the lifting of housing coronavirus measures. 

The lack of legal representation and advice for these individuals has made the prospect of eviction an increasing reality, as many do not have the means or knowledge to know when they are in trouble, finding out when it is too late, or an ability to defend their positions. 

At an increase to almost 40% of the population of England and Wales not having a housing legal aid provider in their local authority area (data from the Legal Aid Agency directory of providers (2021) and the Office of National Statistics (2021)), the Law Society is campaigning for improvements to be  made in the offer of  Legal Aid, however this issue may also be helped through alternative means of access to legal knowledge- such as Legal Utopia. 

The term ‘Legal advice deserts’ appeared earlier this year when the Law Society commenced their campaign to raise awareness of the difficulties within the civil legal aid system and encourage the government to make urgent changes. It refers to the areas in England and Wales where there is little to no local access to legal advice and support. It also highlights the lack of coverage of certain areas of law within the legal advice centres that already exist, such as community care, immigration and asylum, and housing.

Annual legal aid spending in housing cases decreased from £18.5m in 2012/13 to £6.5m by 2017/18. This, in combination with the decrease in legal support centres within local areas has placed tenants in difficult situations when they are in need of legal help, potentially leading to the dire consequence of homelessness. Not only do renters find themselves acting on their own behalf as ‘litigants in person’ to defend rent arrears, but they are also unable to benefit from early legal intervention. This is particularly concerning because it means that there are more cases going to court when they could have been solved much quicker and more cheaply with the correct legal knowledge of rent agreements and how to approach landlords.

In the recent months such issues have reached a new level of priority following the coronavirus pandemic and the stay on evictions which occurred between March and September 2020. The co-chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, Simon Mullings, indicated that the deferred evictions did not change the struggles of tenants, but postponed them to this period, thus adding to the pressure on the need for legal support in housing.

How can tenants be helped?

Whilst it is clear that improvements to legal aid in housing and other areas of civil law is a priority for the Law Society, it would seem that change is not going to come directly from lawmakers. The Ministry of Justice insisted to the Law Society Gazette in October that ‘everyone in England and Wales is able to access help and advice either face-to-face or through the Civil Legal Aid telephone service, ’ and made it clear that they disagreed with the Law Society’s findings. For struggling tenants at, this means that alternative resources and methods  may be needed to both educate and assist them on potential legal issues regarding their tenancy.

This could include directly contacting councils for legal advice or accessing legal information digitally.  Legal Utopia offers a range of Housing – specific guidances in simple and clear language to assist with identifying potential issues in tenancy agreements. There is also a wide range of resources available to help with finding legal representation (Find a Lawyer) and attending court. 

Overview

  • There has been a reduction in legal aid services across England and Wales, creating areas in which the Law Society has labelled ‘Legal Advice Deserts.’
  • This lack of access to legal advice and support has been felt most acutely within the housing sector for tenants. Tenants struggle with understanding when they are in need of legal help and access to this help occurs at an unhelpfully late stage, when eviction is often imminent. 
  • Legal Advice Deserts concerning housing law are being addressed by the Law Society’s campaign, but tenants needing legal advice may be able to use alternative legal resources, such as those offered by Legal Utopia.

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