DASLS Latest News
Families across large parts of Devon and Somerset are denied state-funded advice on housing issues because of legal aid deserts which have emerged due to drastic government cuts in spending, the Law Society of England and Wales said as it launched a new interactive map highlighting the problem.
Mark Roome, President of Devon and Somerset Law Society said: “Our region has just three firms of solicitors in Devon, and one in Somerset who specialise in housing and whose advice is available through legal aid.
“Advice on housing is vital for people who are facing eviction, the homeless and those renting a property in serious disrepair. Early legal advice on housing matters can make the difference between a family being made homeless or not.”
With just three providers in Devon, the situation can become very difficult. James Durston of Cartridges Law in Exeter, which does provide the service, says that the main thing he has noticed is the distance that people have to travel to get housing advice. North Devon in particular is a ‘desert’ with clients having to travel an hour or more to Exeter, which is only possible if they have a car, or lift.
“Clients, many of whom can’t drive or don’t own a car, often end up getting lifts from relatives or even support workers. Torbay and Plymouth clients can at least get a train to Exeter, but it’s still very inconvenient for them.
“The strangest example is a client who actually lives in East London but couldn’t find a solicitor locally. He has family in Plymouth, and found me that way.”
There is also an issue for cases involving possession action against joint tenants. James explained:
“In such cases, the defendants are often required to have separate legal advice; for one such case in which we are acting for the male half of a couple, we had to refer his partner elsewhere. She is in very fragile mental health and found it very difficult to get to Plymouth to see the only alternative provider available.”
The situation in Devon and Somerset is echoed across the UK. Catherine Dixon, chief executive of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: "People who require legal aid advice for housing issues often need it urgently. Families are unable to access justice because they cannot afford to travel to see the one provider in their area who may be located long distances from where they live. Almost one third of legal aid areas in England and Wales have one, and in some cases, zero housing providers, including large, rural areas such as Cornwall, Somerset and Central Wales.”
The Law Society has produced an interactive 'legal aid deserts heat map' to draw attention to the extent of the crisis in the provision of legal aid advice for housing issues.
Catherine Dixon added: "The impact of homelessness on individuals can be huge – but it also hits the public purse. And, just as legal aid advice deserts have opened up, the demand for housing advice has escalated.