How The Legal Aid Means Test Excludes People With No Accommodation From Receiving Free Advice and Assistance

Legal Aid is supposed to be available for homeless people who need assistance in refusal by a local authority to provide them with accommodation which they are entitled to. 

The problem with the means assessment system is that a homeless person who is not receiving a passported benefit or an extremely low wage is likely to be ineligible for assistance. This is because they do not have any housing costs to be deducted from their income when calculating their disposable income.  If they had temporary accommodation which they were liable to pay rent for this rent could be taken into account but once they are homeless there is no housing cost and their disposable income goes up to a level which will often take them over the limit of £733.00 per month. 

To illustrate this; I was approached recently by a woman who had just been evicted from her temporary accommodation along with her daughter because the council had found her to be intentionally homeless. She needed help challenging this decision. Unfortunately, if she had come to see me before her temporary accommodation was cancelled she would have been eligible but once she had been evicted her wages and tax credits left her with a  monthly disposable income of £1,286.32. This took her over the eligibility limit by £553.33 which was less than her rent had been. This has the absurd effect that someone who has no accommodation and is therefore in more pressing need for the assistance is unable to get the assistance which they would have got before she lost her temporary accommodation. 

I wondered if there might be some way around this problem. I sent an email to the Legal Aid Agency’s Contact Civil Team which read:

I have recently been asked to help a homeless single parent. Who had been evicted from her temporary accommodationprovided by the council and is staying with a friend

She is working in a low paid job and would have been eligible for assistance under Legal Help up to the point when she was evicted from her temporary accommodation. However at that point she ceased to have any housing costs. This meant that the deductions from her income were reduced and her disposable income was increased above the eligibility limit.

The effect of the above is that whilst the client would have been eligible for assistance up to the point when she was evicted from her temporary accommodation she was not eligible once she had actually been evicted. I trust that you will agree that it cannot have been the intention of those who prepared the eligibility rules to exclude someone as a result of their need for assistance becoming more acute as in this case and that they should be penalised for having no accommodation which was the reason they sought assistance. Please can you let me know if there is any way in which a provider can assist a homeless person such as this under the Legal Help scheme or why it is considered appropriate for them not to receive assistance.

I received the following response. 

Legal aid is available to fund cases that are within the scope of the civil scheme (as per LASPO Act), for those who are financially eligible and whose case satisfies the merits test.  The means test is laid down in the regulations to determine who is financially eligible for funding; the limited circumstances where a waiver applies are set out in regulations 9-12 of the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013, a waiver does not appear to be applicable in this case . You have indicated your concern that the individual in question does not qualify within the income limit based on her current income and outgoings.  Your concern is noted. With any scheme which assists vulnerable people, there will appear to be ‘hard cases’ at the margin.

This response can be summarised as confirming that there is no way round the fact that someone can lose their entitlement to Legal Aid based on their means as a result of losing their temporary accommodation. It is good to know that my concern has been noted by the Legal Aid Agency but disappointing that it is not shared. I guess its not the responsibility of staff at Contact Civil to agitate for defects in system to be repaired.

I think that there is a clear need here for the means test rules to be amended so as to allow people who have no accommodation to avoid being penalised for having no housing costs. This could be achieved by treating such people in the same way that people on passported benefits are treated. The Legal Help form could ask whether the applicant is on a passported benefit and/or has no accommodation of their own. 

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