My first assignment for Inside Housing.
Cuts to legal aid and new spending restrictions mean tens of thousands of tenants will no longer be eligible for free housing advice. Jess McCabe visits a law centre to investigate the likely impact of the changes
Michelle Waite, a solicitor at the Rochdale Law Centre, is in high spirits. She has just won a difficult case that will allow one of her clients to stay in their home despite being issued with a possession order by their social landlord.
This was one of 60 eviction-related cases this local law centre has dealt with this year, up 10 per cent on the same period in 2010. It is one of 56 such centres across England, Wales and Northern Ireland that offer free legal advice to residents in private and social housing.
Now, though, the services these centres offer are under pressure as a result of cuts to the £2.1 billion legal aid bill, paid by the government to solicitors in return for helping people who cannot afford to pay for private legal advice.
Legal aid fees for civil cases, such as housing cases, were slashed by 10 per cent in October as part of the package of public sector spending cuts announced in the coalition’s comprehensive spending review last year. If the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill successfully works its way through parliament, as many as 52,000 housing cases per year – such as harassment by landlords, housing benefit problems and compensation claims for disrepair – will no longer be deemed eligible for financial support.
To see first-hand how law centres are coping under the increasing strain, Inside Housing spent a day with Rochdale Law Centre’s housing team, Ms Waite, fresh from her recent victory, and senior housing solicitor Gill Quine.