On Monday and Tuesday, 21-22 May, the High Court will hear a challenge from the Law Centres Network (LCN) to changes that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) wants to introduce to legal aid.
The changes concerned relate to duty solicitor desks in County Courts. These desks provide immediate legal advice, assistance and advocacy to people at risk of losing their home. These people, often vulnerable, commonly face possession proceedings due to rent arrears or mortgage debt. To them, stakes are high – they might be evicted and become homeless – so this timely assistance is vital.
There are currently 113 Housing Possession Court Duty schemes (HPCDS) across England and Wales. MoJ last year decided to consolidate into only 47 schemes, each covering much larger geographical areas. Currently, MoJ sets the fees for the service, and organisations wanting to deliver it bid for contracts at these fixed fees. Last year, MoJ also decided to introduce a price competition among bidders, potentially driving fees even lower.
LCN is asking the Court to quash MoJ’s decision to proceed with the tender in a form that drastically consolidates the scheme areas and introduces price competition. It argues that MoJ chose to dismantle HPCDS as we know it based on questionable and untested assumptions, and without any serious analysis of how this might affect the people for whom the service is intended. Importantly, Law Centres are not alone in objecting to the changes: MoJ decided to press ahead despite overwhelming opposition from duty desk providers which responded to its consultation on the matter.
Developments since the launch of the legal challenge raise the stakes for Law Centres. Highly unusually, the Legal Aid Agency completed its HPCDS tender much faster than even it had predicted. The outcome also bore out LCN’s concerns: 12 Law Centres currently hold duty desk contracts, but only three have won their bids to operate duty contracts from the autumn.
As community resources with strong local links, Law Centres delivering duty desks connect the people helped with follow-on assistance, to resolve the underlying issues that got them to the brink of home loss: benefits miscalculation, delay or sanction, problem debt, or unlawful job loss. This help is no longer offered on legal aid, but is vital to make the legal-aided duty desk intervention truly effective.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said:
“Law Centres have provided the duty court scheme for 17 years. It is an important way to contact people in crisis who don’t know how or where to find help. Yet for unknown reasons, the MoJ has decided that it is completely ‘rational’ to ‘fix’ something that is not broken, while ignoring the view of expert practitioners. We are dedicated to giving legal assistance to people in need, and are sick and tired of watching vital services be degraded.”
For further information please contact
- Pamela Judge, Law Centres Network Communications Manager, tel. 01239 711 041 or 07999 512 823 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, Law Centres Network Head of Policy and Profile, at email@example.com
Notes to editors
- The Law Centres Network (LCN) is the national membership body for Law Centres.
- A Law Centre is a not-for-profit law practice, often a charity, that specialises in social welfare law. Law Centres focus their largely free legal assistance on the people in greatest need, who live in disadvantage and are the least able to afford to pay for legal assistance. Law Centres have operated in the UK since 1970, and there are currently 43 across the country.
- Cuts introduced in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 have taken much of social welfare law – welfare benefits, housing, employment, immigration – out of legal aid scope. The Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme (HPCDS) is one of the few provisions remaining; last year it helped nearly 40,000 cases.
- LCN is instructing solicitor Polly Brendon of the Public Law Project. Counsel are Jason Coppel QC and Edward Capewell of 11 King’s Bench Walk. The case will be heard by Mrs Justice Andrews DBE at the Administrative Court in London.
Law Society Gazette - "Enough Is Enough: Law Centres Prepare to Fight MoJ in Court"