Property Bar Assoc

Access to justice is the foundation of our legal system. Is achieving it now easier said than done? The last five years has seen significant cuts to both legal aid and the court system in general. What is the impact 'on the ground' for those that are facing the loss of their home? 

The county court possession list has historically been one of the busiest days of the week, with waiting rooms filled to capacity. Tens of cases are listed together - it was commonplace to still be waiting at midday for a 10 o'clock hearing. However, it appears that although the lists are getting longer, the waiting rooms are getting quieter. 

Despite this, the statistics still show that the overall median time from claim to landlord repossession is approximately 20 weeks.[1] Statistics also show that more people are being evicted but those seen by the duty advisers are going down - it seems safe to infer that fewer people are actually turning up to court. So, what is going on? 

It is almost impossible to gather reliable data as to why people are not defending possession claims - however it is very likely that a major factor will be the lack of (affordable) legal advice (both in terms of the scope of legal aid and the number of solicitors offering it) coupled with the loss of the 'local' county court and the 'streamlining' of court services. Are lack of administrative resources now the biggest barrier to access to justice for everyone involved? 

One of the recent changes at most county courts is the introduction of the appointment system for administrative matters. Before, a tenant who was facing eviction could turn up the day before to issue an application for a stay whereas they must now call the court office and book an appointment. Surely, this would save everyone time? No more waiting in a queue! However, the ideology and the practice do not go hand in hand. Solicitors have reported spending hours on the phone trying but never managing to make an appointment, usually resorting to cornering (the always lovely but overworked) ushers to persuade them to find someone to help. But how does this impact the litigant-in-person? Who knows what happens to those who can't get an appointment. Are they losing their homes over something as simple as the lack of staff to run the counter? 

The Autumn budget provides that we are on the road to the end of austerity. But funding the court system is never a big vote winner among the general public, so is the best we can hope for that no further cuts are coming?