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THE GOVERNMENT’S decision to change the provision of “vital” free legal advice services for people at risk of losing their home is unlawful, the High Court heard today.
The Law Centres Network (LCN), a national membership and co-ordinating body for law centres, is bringing a legal challenge against the Lord Chancellor — Justice Minister David Gauke — for decisions pressing ahead with reforms it claims are irrational and in breach of the Equality Act.
In written submissions, Jason Coppel QC warned that changes to civil legal aid services through the housing possession court duty schemes (HPCDS) will have a “significant impact” on centres.
He said that “vulnerable individuals who are at risk of eviction from their homes and homelessness” relied on the schemes, based at courts dealing with housing repossessions, which provide “on-the-day, face-to-face legal advice, assistance and advocacy.”
The LCN say the changes have led to providers working across much larger geographical areas, with “a drastic reduction in the number of procurement areas from 113 to 47.” The result is fewer contracts, meaning many law centres will be unable to continue to provide HPCDS services.
They claim Mr Gauke made his decision “on the basis of highly questionable assumptions about ‘sustainability’ and has done so without any serious analysis of his decisions on law centres … and the vulnerable clients they represent.”
They also point out that 11 law centres have already closed as a result of 2012 cuts to legal aid, meaning “all centres have fewer staff and available funds than previously.”
The LCN said the current availability of legally aided housing advice was “shocking,” with the counties of Shropshire and Suffolk containing “not a single solicitor providing housing advice under a legal aid contract.”
The hearing continues.
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