There have been a lot of announcements recently from the government about housing law reform, and what they intend to do in the private rented sector. Whether any of these proposals will actually come to pass is not certain. However I (along with many others) am concerned about the approach taken by this government, both in respect of their initiatives in the private rented sector and indeed generally as regards legal aid.
Long term readers of this blog will know that I have written extensively in the past on legal aid, and have expressed concern, along with other law professionals, at what appears to be the gradual destruction of our once proud legal aid system. This was set up by a Labour government in 1949, and was at that time considered to be an essential service along with the national health service.
In the past
When I first started to practice law in the 1980’s, virtually all law firms offered a legal aid service, along with their work for fee paying clients. Someone on a low income could get legal help and assistance from almost any firm they wanted. However in the past 15 years or so, this has all changed. Now hardly any firms do legal aid, and it is extremely difficult for people to get help for housing, welfare, and similar legal problems.
Giving with one hand …
It ironic that the government which gave us the Human Rights Act 1998 has taken away the ability for many people to use it. We live in a complex society and our laws are therefore complex also, as a reflection of this. Inevitably it will be difficult for ordinary people to enforce the legal rights which are available to them, without professional legal help.
Yet this government seems intent on dismantling the legal aid system, and is making it more difficult for people in need to get proper help.
The recent PRS announcements
A prime example of this is the recent announcement by Mr John Healey, the minister for housing. He accepts that tenants need help, but what is he offering them? A tripadvisor type web-site and a telephone helpline. However what tenants in difficulty *need*, is to see a qualified and experienced lawyer face to face. Yet this is something the government appears reluctant to countenance.
What tenants actually need
Face to face advice, in particular for people who are disadvantaged (which will include vast numbers of tenants), is really essential. As I discussed in 2006, telephone advice can be worse than useless.
To advise properly you need to see the paperwork. An experienced housing solicitor can often get a complete understanding of a situation from just a brief glance through the papers. He will then be able to advise on the correct course of action with confidence. However a tenant at the end of a telephone line will not know the significance of the paperwork they hold. They may, for example refer to a courts summons as an injunction, and fail to mention altogether documents which are crucial in the understanding of their case.
What happened to joined up thinking?
Proper professional advice can not only help the client, it can also in the long term reduce public expenditure. For example there was a report recently in Shelter’s magazine Roof, about a recent case where a young man, who had got into a bit of a muddle with his rent. Through the help of an experienced solicitor from the South West London Law Centre, he was able to bring a claim under the Human Rights Act against the Local Authority who were seeking to evict him. He is now assured of accommodation. Making him homeless would have done no-one any good, and if he had ended up sleeping on the streets, he could have developed medical problems which would then have been a cost to the National Health Service.
Save our Law Centres
The South West London Law centre is fortunate in that it receives support from City law firms (not normally short of a bob or two). However even so it is finding it extremely difficult to survive. Many law centres have closed over the past few years and others have major funding problems. Yet law centers such as this are crucial for helping the under privileged.
If Mr Healey really wants to support and help tenants, providing more funding for law centres might be a better way of doing it. Rather than funding a ‘tripadvisor’ type web-site which is not going to do much to help needy tenants (many of whom won’t even have access to a computer), and will only serve to antagonise the landlord community who, understandably, consider it to be invitation to malicious tenants with a grudge to ‘bad mouth’ them.
Then there is the question of law reform generally. The Law Commission was set up specifically to review the law, and make recommendations for reform. From about 2003 it conducted a major review of housing law and carried out a consultation exercise where literally hundreds of landlords, tenants, and advisors were spoken to and/or submitted responses. This culminated in 2006 with a final report, the Renting Homes Report, and an accompanying draft bill. Shamefully, this major and well thought out report has been completely ignored.
What is the point of having a respected organisation such as the Law Commission, with expert lawyers such as Professor Martin Partington (who headed up much of the housing project), conduct an expensive and detailed review, if you are going to completely ignore it?
The governments main reaction was to commission yet another report (no doubt hoping that this would bring forth the ‘right answers’) from Dr Julie Rugg. However the actions which are now proposed (including the proposed ill thought out reforms to the planning system) follow neither the (generally excellent) advice of Dr Rugg nor that of the Law Commission (although there are elements of both).
The Law Society’s Manifesto
The Law Society, as the representative body for solicitors, who form the largest part of this country’s legal profession, has recently issued a ‘manifesto‘ setting out its position and its concerns. It looks at four main areas:
- The rule of law and access to justice
- The defence of the rights of the people
- Good governance and better law-making
- A strong and independent legal services sector
The document makes some very important points, and I hope that both those in power at present, and those hoping to be in power, will read it and take note. You can download the pdf here.
The tenancy deposit disaster
One of the points the Law Society make is about ill drafted legislation and unintended consequences. We have seen this with the tenancy deposit legislation, added as a late amendment to the Housing Act 2004.
Although generally based on a good idea, the drafting of the clauses have proved so problematic that we are at the time of writing left with a situation where a tenant’s right to recover the penalty award of three time the deposit money (supposed to be there as a deterrent to landlords) is now dependent on the rules of the tenancy deposit scheme concerned. Surely it should be the terms of the Housing Act which decide this, not a third parties terms and conditions?
Is this what we want?
One of the problems we have, and in particular with legal aid, is the general negative attitude people have towards the legal profession. Generally people’s response when learning about cuts in the legal aid scheme is something along the lines of “good, that will stop all those greedy lawyers making fat profits from our money”.
Leaving aside the fact that legal aid lawyers are finding it difficult to make any sort of profit at all, let alone a fat one, the fact is that in the long run it it is not going to be the lawyers who will suffer. They are all pretty clever people with a good qualification, they will find something else to do (and will probably be a lot better off financially as a result). The people who will suffer will be the clients, desperately in need of good legal help, but with no-one available to provide it.
Is that the sort of society we want to live in?