Hogan Lovells alongside the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Pro Bono recently launched a report highlighting the lack of legal services in London. The report, 'Mind the Gap: an assessment of unmet legal need in London' observed 325 appointments in MP's surgeries in 2016. The findings are startling - 89% of appointments are for legal issues with the majority being about housing, immigration or welfare benefits. In short, people were turning to their local MPs to seek legal advice on vital issues. They did not feel like they had anywhere else to go.
The report cites housing as the biggest cause for constituents seeking help. 'One MP estimated that housing now accounts for around 80% of cases they specifically handle' with one MP raising concerns about referring people to legal centres due to them being at full capacity already. Cuts to legal aid and shrinking legal provision means the situation is unsustainable in the long term. Many Citizen's Advice Bureaus have needed to close due to lack of funding and this is likely to be an increasing problem. At the launch of the report there were concerns raised by charities that once referred on by MPs, there was no way to track people and the support they received. Many people, particularly vulnerable people, risk falling through the net and getting lost in an incomprehensible system.
Linked to this issue most worryingly is raising concerns that financial sanctions on benefits claimants 'have increased in severity in recent years and can have serious consequences' as stated in a report by the Parliamentary public accounts committee. The cuts to welfare spending and changes to welfare policies have meant that many people face uncertainty as to how they'll even afford to eat. Leaving these people without any legal guidance as to their rights is deplorable.
Charities like the Citizenship Foundation seek to address this. Through their innovative public legal education (PLE) programmes they encourage young people to understand the legal system and increase their confidence when navigating it. The Law Society and Bar Council support this groundbreaking work as it's recognised that a foundation of legal understanding can support young people in their daily lives all the way into adulthood. The premise is simple - people need to know about their rights and responsibilities. People need to feel confident when dealing with the legal system by knowing where they stand. Employment law, housing law, human rights and many other areas are vital for young people to know about. These areas amongst so many others relate directly to them and their lives. Equipping them with knowledge can be a lifeline for many people decades down the line.
The APPG's report highlights the risks of people not having a legal recourse in adulthood. It highlights how ordinary people are being left without any legal support for their housing or welfare needs. It's not only a call for the private sector to increase their voluntary work to support their local communities but also a damning picture of what unmet legal need actually looks like - individuals up against a system they simply do not understand with laws they feel dis-empowered to challenge, a legal aid system that is unable to help them and an inability to access justice.