Post by Colin Henderson on Nov 27, 2014 0:28:15 GMT
If you're reading this it may be because you've just read the investigation into the decline of housing advice where I've been helping Melanie Newman of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. If you haven't, then please go and do so NOW, or the rest of this will make less sense.
Ever since LASPO day 1 April 2013 advice and representation for benefits law, employment, debt and most housing law was abolished. During the debates around LASPO the LibDems and Tories threw around estimates for the numbers of social welfare law cases, almost all in housing, which would remain. Over the 18 months since then I began to hear that agencies were finding it hard to fulfill even the reduced quotas of possession, eviction and homeless cases left in scope, yet demand for the work remained as high as ever. Why was this?
Then we started to see the evidence of true advice deserts spreading across the country with re-tenders being advertised by the LAA. Over 600 housing suppliers were listed but some areas appeared to have nothing. This year’s controlled (advice level) work allocation was 80% minimum of last year’s, but I wondered how much work was really being done now.
So when I was approached by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism to help them look at this I was keen to help. Together we drafted a detailed Freedom of Information Act request breaking down the figures for all cases actually started in the four main remaining civil legal aid categories Family, Mental Health, Immigration and Housing. The spreadsheet we got back was comprehensive, but needed careful analysis. We were not just looking for the difference before and after LASPO. We also wanted to know what the trends were since April 2013.
Mental Health didn’t seem to have taken a hit – no scope changes there. Family and immigration were much reduced but relatively stable and had actually had an artificial peak just before the scope reductions, for example as lawyers raced to open those final divorce cases. In housing law however the trend was clear: - Across the country less and less work was being done each quarter - Advice deserts were opening up where there were no suppliers - Deserts now existed where there was capacity but the work was no longer being done.
Before the cuts over 100,000 housing clients were being advised at legal help level each year and 12,000 got full representation. Based on returns to end July 2014, we are on target for a massive 80% reduction in face-to-face advice cases and 50% less in representation cases. But most worryingly these totals are about half the reduced numbers than the Legal Aid Agency predicted in 2012. It turned out that a quarter of the cases in the figures they released earlier this year were telephone gateway queries, but the more recent figures we obtained revealed the true scale of the collapse in face-to-face advice.
The obvious reason is simply that the work loses money. Shelter’s accounts repeatedly show that their legal services cost twice as much to run as they get back in legal aid. The rates paid are lower than they were twenty years ago when I started this work. Ten years ago the CAB’s legal aid contracts included administration costs and extra travel payments to cover rural Cumbria; then those were stopped. Three years ago we got the 10% rate cut and then last year the scope cuts halved our client base. If I hadn’t been lucky this year with recovering proper legal costs from rogue private landlords I would have been given my cards months ago.
In this blog I have often explained the many reasons why us Zombie legal aid housing lawyers turn away and fail to help clients whose homes we would have saved before. But I think something else, something bigger and nastier, is also going on; it is the breakdown of the whole of the advice sector’s ecology. At the top of the food chain any remaining legal aid work in private sector firms has been pushed to the margins as non-loss-making work takes precedence. In the not-for-profit sector one fifth of Law Centres closed and the rest have shrunk their operations, some even charging for advice. In the generalist advice sector most of the specialists ran down their cases and then cleared their desks. The holistic advice model has been binned in favour of “advice-lite”; a gateway assessment followed by a printout from a website. And so the old referral networks have disintegrated as the new rules made it so difficult to figure out if a client could still be seen by any remaining housing specialist. This all created the general impression, often repeated by agencies and firms who had got out, that all civil legal aid had gone. Oh and please don’t tell me ASTF networks have cured any of this; they themselves will be gone next year.
So here is the “referral journey” of the average housing client post-LASPO. Remember their starting point is that they are usually vulnerable and distressed, possibly mentally unwell, possibly in a chaotic period of their life, possibly not functionally literate, possibly all of the above. Years ago clients had a general knowledge that there were such things as housing rights. Possibly it was a legacy from the heyday of the 70s/80s squatters rights etc. when private sector tenancies were more secure. After 17 years of default shortholds that general legal knowledge has gone, and since the war on welfare began most of my clients are shocked if I tell them they have any rights at all.
But let’s assume our potential client has a vague feeling that they have some legal rights. They will approach the nearest agency for help, usually in person as they are not online and don’t feel confident on the phone. If it’s a non-housing high street firm they probably tell them there is no legal aid any more. Result; they give up. If it’s an advice agency which doesn’t really know its stuff, same result. But if they are clued up and do have a referral protocol they will know where the local housing specialist is to signpost to. There is then a 30 – 50% chance the client might get there, depending how far away and how accessible it is. In Cumbria there is just my bureau, one solicitor in Penrith and the Carlisle Law Centre to cover the second biggest county in England; Shelter closed their Cumbrian office last year.
If our determined client gets to the firm or agency with the legal aid contract they will probably be “gatewayed”; a volunteer adviser will try to work out if the case is in scope for legal aid (remember most housing issues aren’t) and if the client might be financially eligible (i.e benefit-level income only). A majority will be turned away with some basic general advice at this stage - us specialists can no longer do the preventative wokr that saves tenancies, e.g. by sorting out housing benefit. They will tell their friends and family that there is no specialist help/legal aid for housing problems, benefits, etc. It will go around the local community. Their friends will remember not to bother going for help if they ever get a housing problem.
A minority will be told their case is in scope and they are eligible, but now they must come back with proof of all income including 3 months bank statements. A majority will fail to do that – they can’t do paperwork and they needed help straight away. If they do manage to bring the paperwork then they will finally get an appointment with the housing specialist, and with luck it may even be before the eviction date. In my experience I’d guess less than 1 in 10 make it that far now.
The government clearly wanted to abolish all legal aid in housing just as they did for employment, benefits advice and most family cases, but the Human Rights Act prevented them. Instead their policies are designed to cause us a slow death, and the racist and unlawful residence test for legal aid was a prime example. In practice it didn’t just affect immigrants because it excluded anyone who couldn’t produce a passport or full birth certificate at their first appointment. It was designed to shut us down by the back door and would have done by now if the High Court hadn’t thrown it out only days before implementation. From these new figures, Grayling’s plans to strangle us slowly appears to be working, but they have one fatal flaw; legal aid lawyers don’t do this work for the money and some of us will still be here for our clients when he’s long gone.
Post by Colin Henderson on Mar 13, 2015 10:43:48 GMT
Six months later...
You will remember my epic fail (I'm so down with the kids) in October when I tried to use the CCMS online legal aid system for the first time in an urgent and very serious unlawful eviction claim. Well I'm pleased to report that after 6 months today I received my substantive certificate and can finally start work.
Put very briefly the timeline was:
- October - apply for legal aid - takes 3-4 hours online (see previous post) - October - Make official complaint
- November - nothing.....
- December - Get inadequate partial admissions to issues in complaint response and finally get emergency certificate - December - advise client still can't start work as emergency cert is timed to expire three days after I received it!
- January - apply to amend now defunct emergency cert to a substantive - another 2 hours online as ALL means and merits questions repeated AND must have up to date Post Office statements - January - write off for statements
- February - receive and upload statements
- March - obtain substantive certificate
Now of course my client has lost faith, lost witnesses and we have both rather lost the will to go on. Yes I know I could have made a bigger stink and probably got it moving by going on to a paper application, there were other issues which took the urgency out of it and client was rehoused quickly, etc, but here's the thing - in October this shambles becomes compulsory and paper applications are being binned.
Word on the housing law street is that everyone is still trying to avoid the system despite pressure from managers. It's slow, very clunky, has no transparency and there is no housing specific training on offer (despite me replying to every evangelical email I get from them asking for it). It's so dysfunctional that I hear Shelter have instructed their staff to stop using it pending "discussions" with LAA managers.
Six months to get one uncontroversial certificate. And six months to go for housing solicitors to find a new job.
Post by Colin Henderson on Sept 9, 2015 9:39:09 GMT
Life after undeath
Looks like the cat is out of the bag. Like most of you still doing legal aid I've been looking for an exit strategy, but these things don't just turn up when you need them.
At law school, we used to console ourselves that for the many thousand of pounds it was costing to get qualified if we ever hit tough times we could always just buy a little brass plaque, stick it on the front door and set up for ourselves. But that was in the days before privatisation of the solicitors' insurance market - now you need five figures in the bank just to start up and pay your premiums.
Until this year. The Bar Standards Board is also now able and willing to regulate law firms, and if you don't handle client's cash the insurance is hundreds not thousands. So that's what my mate and I have done. Here it is: The Reflective Practice.
"Company director I see. So you sold out, Colin?" No... not really; we work for union members. These days being in a union is the best and often only way to get decent legal advice and representation for free.
Post by Colin Henderson on Mar 9, 2016 13:02:20 GMT
"I, for one, welcome our new overlords"
On the days I still work as a legal aider I increasingly feel way out of these times. Yes I suppose we now have Jeremy C trying to talk some sanity in a country where starving the vulnerable is acceptable social policy, but we certainly don't have any robust criticism from others you might expect to stand up for justice. Those like Gillian Guy, CEO of Citizens Advice, say.
Let me be clear, I am CAB since I first volunteered as a law student and I remain fiercely proud of my colleagues and the bureaux that employ me. But as for the national organisation... We started a thread pointing out the issues and a glance at recent press releases shows several positive quotes about government policies and criticism being kept to a bizarre group of consumer-related targets such as private pensions providers, energy companies and the price of a stamp.
As I flagged would happen last year, my local court in Kendal is closing in 2 months. The work will transfer to 35 miles away, making it much harder for struggling defendants in possession proceedings to get to court and stop evictions. Many local CABs campaigned hard to try and stop the closures. My colleagues at Allerdale CAB lobbied alongside many others and helped win a valuable reprieve for Workington Court.
The last government and this have now closed around half the courts in the land. One would surely expect that CitA would support its grass roots in backing local justice? Would understand how attending a local court is essential to obtaining it, especially given that CAB employees like me work as duty reps in these courts? But here is the quote in full from Gillian: “People’s access to justice must be preserved when courts are closed. The Government’s aim to help more people secure justice without attending court in person is right and for this to be achieved the implementation must match. The stress and difficulty of giving evidence or getting redress through the justice system can be heightened by the pressures of attending court in person. While court closures could mean some people have to travel longer distances, technology such as video links could help tackle this issue. And where this can be done safely it is also sensible to explore how other community locations can be used by people seeking justice.”
Post by Colin Henderson on Jul 2, 2016 14:06:11 GMT
The Last Post “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”
Heard that this week? Did you know it’s attributed to Lenin? I first read his work when I was 15, and the State and Revolution is still the key Marxist pamphlet for me – I wrote my dissertation on it some three decades ago. But this week I was very grateful to have been taught Marxism as a youth. As I watched the Brexit fallout happen and many friends looked on incredulous, horrified, depressed, I felt nothing but clarity and enervation - every single part of what unfolded made perfect sense.
Yes the worry over whether Jeremy would stand firm under the vicious extended water-boarding by his own “colleagues” was intense, but he did. Those who experienced the battles of the seventies and eighties are tougher than any careerist Labour MP. And they also know what solidarity is. The plotters have left themselves hideously exposed now. In an age of social media the spinning and plotting gets easily uncovered in days. Their bullying has appalled workers who have all experienced similar treatment by rampant employers.
But what the Blairites totally overlooked was that all those thousands of hours that Jeremy spent faithfully attending tiny meetings for unknown causes would all be repaid in his hour of need. I was moved by and retweeted those messages. It’s a simple thing called solidarity and its beautiful, and I pity all the 172 misguided MPs who will never experience it now when they are deservedly deselected and dumped. Others who pose as radicals ended up on the fence with their credibility in tatters (see my tweets to find out who).
Why did they do it? Not at all because Jeremy might lose the next election whenever it is (and it’s probably not imminent), but because the elite they are an intrinsic part of are terrified he might actually win it. And then radical anti-austerity policies could arrive to block the super-exploitation/globalisation they and their like have all invested in.
Why did they do it now of all times? Sheer panic - they’d been looking to launch a coup for months, but unfortunately Labour kept winning everything under Jeremy, every mayoral and by-election. Oh, and because it’s never, ever been about defeating their Tory friends, their true parliamentary colleagues.
You see for me it’s always been political. I know that all the advising, advocating, lawyering for the many casualties of capitalism is very necessary work but it’s treading water. Applying sticking plasters on gaping wounds that only the abolition of capitalism can heal permanently. And since LASPO and the war on welfare (remember most of the 172 plotters abstained on the Welfare Bill) it has felt that we’ve been working in a battlefield without even a first aid kit.
During the politically empty decades being a legal aid lawyer kept me and many other former activists in work and feeling we might be engaged in a minor rear-guard action against the state. But legal aid is not even a zombie now, it’s effectively dead, as the latest stats out this week show and for all the technical and practical reasons I’ve described previously on this blog. Most potential clients are out of scope or out of eligibility or out of their minds with the pressure of survival and deprivation. Sadly many are beyond the help of legal advice, but the greatest problem is that now most assume they have no rights and never even walk through our doors.
I’ve been waiting for Lenin’s words to come true for decades. Now they have I’m going to prioritise other work – working with unions to ensure they can represent their members, working with younger people to rebuild knowledge on how to change the system forever and learn from the many humbling and heroic stories of those who have tried before. I’m not giving up on or getting out of the advice sector, but my new optimism means now is the time to end this downbeat blog.
Join me in whatever way you want. Join a movement, make change happen, be like Jeremy. And then one of these weeks not too far off now I might see you on the barricades.