The Legal Aid Agency is urgently seeking housing practitioners who can provide emergency advice to tenants facing eviction in what will be seen as further proof of a sustainability crisis within the sector.
An ‘expression of interest’ document was published earlier this month inviting providers who currently hold a civil legal aid contract to deliver housing possession court duty services.
The agency said it had identified ‘an issue with access’ on four housing possession court duty schemes – Stockport, Chester and Crewe, Sunderland and Cambridge – and is looking for providers interested in delivering services ‘as quickly as possible’.
Expressions of interest are also sought for the Hull scheme from 1 November.
The agency funds the scheme to provide emergency advice and advocacy to anyone facing possession proceedings, regardless of their financial circumstances.
Possession proceedings were suspended for six months last year to protect private and social renters, and those with mortgages and licences covered by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The court duty scheme resumed in October and there was an average of 518 starts per month between January and March 2021. The monthly average between January and March 2020, prior to the first lockdown, was 2,300.
Concerns about HPCDS provision were raised at the May meeting of the Civil Contracts Consultative Group, a regular forum attended by the Legal Aid Agency, the Law Society and other practitioner groups.
The minutes for the meeting state that the LAA remained concerned about the difficulties encountered by housing possession providers.
‘A number of housing possession providers had withdrawn from their contracts and the commissioning team were tendering to replace services as quickly as possible. Courts had resumed housing possession hearings, but the position varied across the country.’
Kate Pasfield, director of legal aid policy at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, told the forum that the fee model for court duty work was based on high case volumes and block listing.
In a hard-hitting report last month, the House of Commons justice select committee said sustainability issues for civil legal aid were ‘sufficiently serious’ to justify overhauling the system. Government officials are currently conducting an internal review on sustainability.