Written Submissions by Olivia Crowther,
Director and Solicitor, Shearer and Co Solicitors Ltd
I represent Shearer and Co Solicitors Ltd. This firm is a Legal Aid housing provider and has no other practice areas. We provided debt and benefits advice and assistance before LASPO. I make these submissions because LASPO has had a profound impact, not only on our firm, but on Legal Aid providers throughout rural areas particularly and, most importantly, on our clients.
I have worked as a Legal Aid housing solicitor both before an after the introduction of LASPO.
My experience is that LASPO has seriously curtailed access to justice and particularly access to welfare and dignity amongst my clients. Because LASPO removed the ability of providers to give advice and assistance to individuals facing difficulties with their benefits claims and early stage appeals, and because no other organisations were able to fill that gap, those individuals seriously struggled providing for themselves and their families.
As a result, many had to turn to food banks and sadly many became homeless, including families with children. Those individuals had rightful entitlement to benefits but were unable to navigate the claim and appeal systems, for a diversity of reasons, including disability, language difficulties and cognitive difficulties. This lack of access to advice and assistance equated effectively to lack of access to the legal system.
As a housing solicitor, I witnessed that this failure to fund basic benefits advice often resulted in significant outlays of public funding for expensive possession litigation.
Also, as a former trustee of Wiltshire Citizens Advice and Wiltshire Mind, I have witnessed an impact on local charities as well, and their decreased ability to provide advice and assistance and particularly case work. For example, Wiltshire CAB shed its Legal Aid benefits contract upon the introduction of LASPO. Thus, LASPO was a double whammy, insofar as needy individuals could no longer turn to solicitors to provide benefits and debt advice, and, at the same time, the rug was pulled on charities who would have been able to provide the same advice. With a simultaneous decrease in local authority budgets, advice charities were severely constricted in the kind of work they could take on or, in some cases, wound up, and previously eligible, desperate clients were left without any assistance.
I note that LASPO was introduced around the time of the introduction of Universal Credit, the bedroom tax and the benefits cap. Thus, there was a perfect storm to increase evictions, dependence on food banks and a deterioration in physical and mental health for vulnerable people.
I have felt that the role of the Legal Aid Agency has been as a gatekeeper rather than a facilitator of Legal Aid funding. In my experience of legal aid in the United States, providers do not need to spend significant portions of their costs budgets for cases on applying for and evidencing eligibility for legal aid. Here, I feel that sometimes half of my time is spent doing so. With the introduction of LASPO, this situation has worsened. ECF applications particularly are laborious and frankly not worth the time, despite in many instances being meritorious and likely eligible.
When profit margins are so low, it is obviously difficult to recruit and retain quality staff. Even the most civic minded individuals would struggle to remain in the profession, when they cannot afford expenses.
It is a slap in the face to legal aid solicitors and professionals that even struggling local authorities and charities are able to pay their staff up to fifty percent more to do the same work. Heads of household particularly may find that they cannot justify remaining in legal aid.
As the only senior legal aid housing solicitors under retirement age between London and Bristol, I have watched as firm after firm shed its legal aid practice after LASPO. Even legal aid firms have shed their housing departments due to an inability to recruit and retain fee earners, leaving a wider desert in numerous legal aid practice areas. Given the situation, courts throughout the land (and particularly in rural areas) lack qualified people to advise vulnerable defendants in possession matters in their time of greatest need.
Further, with the uncertainty of continued Legal Aid funding, the employers that remain are reluctant to bring on and train new staff. LASPO’s reduction in Legal Aid funding has resulted in a reduction of interest in relevant practices areas, even at the university level. Universities have shed courses and training in these practice areas, given the lack of employment opportunities and resulting lack of student interest. As a result, there are no younger practitioners to replace the aging population of existing ones, even where the work may still exist.
As a separate issue, on the introduction of LASPO, benefit and debt advisors with decades of experience were shamefully driven out of work, often into unemployment, lesser skilled work or early retirement. I find this phenomenon to be a total waste, particularly when need was at its greatest.
We have found that the increasing use of technology has worked well in some respects but not others. It has facilitated trainings for providers and forced us to become more efficient in relation to communications with clients, reducing travel times, for example. However, our experience is that it is nigh impossible for some clients to communicate with us, experts, etc., without some face-to-face appointments. Also, our experience with technology in court hearings and trials is that, where a matter involves witness evidence or anything more than a simple application that can be resolved with only a judge and two advocates, telephone and video hearings deny the litigants appropriate access to justice and deny the courts the ability to analyse witness evidence properly, for example. They deny the parties the opportunity to provide their advocates with ongoing and updated instructions throughout the proceedings, thereby prejudicing them. Moreover, they have led to the strong arming of weaker parties into agreeing to consent orders, as the Court has emphasized such agreement in order to clear backlogs but not put protective measures in place, thereby assuming equality between parties that is simply fictional.
We have not yet seen much impact on our services and current clients. Although we have had to adopt different ways of communicating with each other and clients, we have discovered efficiencies in these new practices. HOWEVER, a tidal wave is coming, in relation to increased evictions (including increased illegal evictions) and homelessness, which are a direct result of the coronavirus lockdown. With possession listings and evictions restarting, we are seriously concerned about our capacity to deal with what is to come. Moreover, although we had significant liquidity before the lockdown, our billings will inevitably plummet given the lack of work over the last six months. That impact will be felt six months from now, and we are scrambling to plan for it.
The challenge will continue to be growing deserts where eligible, vulnerable people will not have access to appropriate advice and assistance. The need for legal aid has growth with the introduction of Universal Credit, the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. However, profit margins for providers have shrunk significantly over the years, leaving firms with no choice but to shed their legal aid practice. I cannot see that trajectory changing without significant reform to the entire system of legal aid. I submit that what is needed is not necessarily more money but rather a better use of current resources, which will only come with systemic reform. If I ruled the world, I would eliminate LAA applications altogether (up to a certain funding level) and rely instead on audits on providers, retrospectively confirming that providers have themselves properly analysed and documented eligibility. If, upon audit, providers had no properly utilized resources, then there could be sanctions relating to further access to funding. Again, as someone with experience in legal aid in other countries, I was dumbfounded by the waste in the system here that is mostly found in the onerous LAA application processes. It would behoove us to look for best practices elsewhere to develop more efficient ways of distributing scarce legal aid resources.
Also, I believe that it is critical to reintroduce funding for benefits matters. This current crisis has fueled reliance on benefits and food banks. Those many individuals will need proper legal advice and assistance to secure the benefits to which they are entitled or homelessness rates will continue to skyrocket, health will suffer (including suicide rates) and the requirement for expenditure in other areas, such as support for charities and care teams within local authorities, will significantly increase.