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Removal of legal aid in housing disrepair causes: the unspoken truth

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In April 2013, the availability of legal aid for housing disrepair cases was dealt a devastating blow that has made it very difficult for a tenant to obtain funding in order to bring a claim against their landlord.

At the same time welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax came into force and not a day goes by when there isn’t a story in the news about the effect this has had on some of the most vulnerable people in society. This has meant that the cuts relating to housing disrepair have gone widely unspoken about.

This is not to say that legal aid funding is the only option for a tenant in this position. There are alternative ways to fund a claim such as conditional fee arrangements and private paying that can be investigated but often legal aid funding is the first option some tenants explore.

There are usually two stages to a disrepair claim. The first stage is ensuring all the repairs to a tenant’s property are completed. The second stage is to determine whether the tenant would be able to obtain compensation as a result of the poor living conditions.

Legal aid funding for housing disrepair cases is now only available where there are outstanding repairs at the property and is not available for the compensation element of the claim. This means that the tenant who has suffered with the effects of disrepair such as chest infections, embarrassment at the state of their property and ruined belongings for many years will have to fight for the compensation they deserve themselves.

Realistically this means these tenants will get nothing as generally they will be unwilling or unable to continue the case themselves without legal representation. This change also means that tenants who are forced to move into other accommodation because of the disrepair will not be entitled to any legal aid as there would be no outstanding repair work to be completed.

Secondly, to obtain legal aid funding there must be a serious risk to the tenant’s health. This is a high threshold that many people will not be able to meet. An increase in coughs and colds, although potentially attributable to the disrepair, will not always be deemed to be serious enough to meet the legal aid threshold.

In order to illustrate this issue I have considered the number of disrepair cases that Stephensons acted in between April 2011 and April 2014:

  • Between April 2011 and April 2012, disrepair cases made up 20% of our caseload.
  • Between April 2012 and April 2013, disrepair cases made up 19% of our caseload.
  • Between April 2013 and April 2014, disrepair cases made up 5% of our caseload. 

These figures clearly show that the removal of legal aid from all but the most serious cases means that a significant number of tenants have to live in unsuitable conditions because their landlord will not fix the disrepair and they cannot obtain legal assistance and advice on how to proceed.

These figures do not include the circumstances where a tenant brings a counterclaim for disrepair when issued with possession proceedings for rent arrears. Legal aid is still available in these circumstances and the potential compensation available can assist a tenant in reducing, or even clearing, their arrears.

The cuts to legal aid in April 2013 and other welfare reforms have had a far reaching and devastating effect on the average person’s access to justice. The availability of legal aid in housing disrepair cases has not been as widely publicised as other issues, but I believe that the figures above show that it is a big issue as tenants are left to live in poor conditions because they cannot afford to pay for legal assistance.

By Jessica Knott, Graduate paralegal in the housing law team

If you are a tenant living in a property with disrepair we may be able to assist you. There is still some legal aid funding available and there are alternative funding arrangements available to those who are not entitled to legal aid. Our specialist housing team can consider your case and discuss your options with you. Call us on 0333 344 4772.