In a case which threw into stark relief the grave consequences of legal aid cuts in the civil justice system, a leading firm of solicitors has failed to convince the High Court that public funding should be made available for those who appeal against local authority homelessness decisions.
The firm, one of the UK’s largest publicly funded practices with contracts to provide advice and representation in criminal, family, public law and community care cases, went to court after the Legal Aid Agency refused to financially support clients who were challenging local authority rejections of homelessness applications.
It was submitted that the issues considered by county courts in appeals under Section 204 of the Housing Act 1996 were akin to those arising in judicial review applications before the High Court. The firm argued that, in those circumstances, its work in homelessness appeals fell within the ambit of its public law contract and should thus be eligible for legal aid.
However, in dismissing those arguments, the Court noted that the coming into force of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 in April 2013 had brought a sea change in the legal aid regime. Whereas previously legal aid was generally available for all civil claims, unless expressly excluded, public funding was now only provided for causes of action expressly listed by the Act.
The Court found that there was no express requirement within Section 204 that homelessness appeals should be considered by applying the principles of judicial review. In those circumstances, such appeals to the county court did not fall within the public law category introduced under the 2012 Act.