Filling the legal advice gap - Supporting Litigants to secure their rights
(Author: Sue Day, Citizens Advice Shepway) Since the changes to Legal Aid in 2013 Advice Agencies and the public have struggled. Advice Agencies because previous provision and funding of legal advice has shrunk dramatically and the public because their need for legal advice, assistance and representation remains undiminished but the ability to access this in some areas is no longer there and in others is greatly reduced.
So what happens? Where do they go?
The answer is often to already overloaded Advice Agencies such as Citizens Advice services such as our own. As a Citizens Advice service our mission is to provide the advice that people need for the problems that they face – simple, except when it’s a complicated legal matter…..
As a service we would always work to provide some level of assistance to progress clients but we cannot replace the more complex legal advice that was previously available via legal aid to clients who cannot afford to pay for legal representation some of whom are extremely vulnerable. On a daily basis we see clients with family, legal and housing issues facing or needing to take court action but completely lacking the capacity to do so unaided.
As a service we are fortunate to have a Legal Aid contract to provide specialist housing advice led by our in house solicitor, working across some of the most deprived areas in Kent and providing representation in Thanet and Canterbury Courts. So we know all too well the positive outcomes for people when legal advice and representation is there. The other side of this particular coin is that our awareness is heightened to the consequences of when legal advice is not available.
In April we were therefore thrilled to receive funding specifically to support Litigants in Person in areas and situations where there is no Legal Aid provision and where clients are unable to afford to pay for Legal Representation. Providing a Court Advice Service, we have already seen a wide range of clients who simply would not have been able to navigate their way through the court system.
The outcomes speak for themselves as in the case of Mr P & Mr W:
Suffering from severe arthritis and a long term heart condition, living in private rented accommodation in a poor state of disrepair Mr P had had a possession order issues against him whilst he was in hospital. He had nowhere to go. We helped him to apply for an extension to the possession order to the maximum 42 days to enable him to secure alternative accommodation and helped him to apply for social housing. Homelessness was therefore prevented and he has now been rehoused.
In the case of Mr W, he was left homeless following his 4 children moving in with him after concerns were raised by Social Services regarding the mother who had been granted a residency order. We have now obtained temporary interim accommodation for the client and are applying to the Court to alter the residency and contact arrangements for the 4 dependent children.
Supporting people in this way literally changes and in some cases saves lives so over the next few months we will be looking at how we can develop and expand our work in this area. Watch this space!