Homeless families will risk life on the streets if legal challenge is blocked

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Chris* recently came to Shelter after spending the night sleeping on a park bench in the rain with his partner and new-born son. He had already contacted their local council for help saying they were homeless and had nowhere to go, but was simply told there were no appointments available for two weeks and to make his own arrangements.

The council’s legal duty was to provide Chris and his family with emergency accommodation while they looked into their circumstances. They broke the law when they refused to help.

Faced with another night sleeping rough in the cold and wet, Chris called Shelter’s helpline and was referred immediately to our legal team. They helped him find somewhere to stay over the weekend while they worked tirelessly on the case. Having spent hours compiling the evidence, they wrote to the council threatening to take them to court where a judge would assess whether the council’s decision was lawful.

The threat of judicial review alone was enough to make the council back down. They knew their position was totally indefensible in a court of law, and by Monday afternoon they had found Chris and his family temporary accommodation to move into.

The strongest cases would never normally reach court because council’s concede when threatened with judicial review. Now the government is proposing to drastically restrict the legal aid available for cases, like Chris’, that conclude early and don’t go to court.

If it wasn’t for legal aid we couldn’t have done the urgent work needed to keep Chris and his family off the streets. It’s a vital safeguard that gives everyone, especially people who’ve become homeless through no fault of their own, an equal right to challenge public bodies who break the law. With many councils desperate to safeguard their scarce resources, now more than ever we need to defend our ability to challenge unjust decisions which fail homeless families.

Chris’s story perfectly demonstrates how important and effective the threat of judicial review is at preventing homeless families sleeping on the streets. Ministry of Justice figures, obtained by a Freedom of Information request, show that of all judicial review cases funded by legal aid, more than half end in favour of the client.

There is wide public and cross-party support for the legislation that prevents families sleeping on the streets, and judicial review is the last recourse in making that law meaningful. If it becomes an empty threat, councils will not be challenged and homelessness will rise. We cannot let this happen.

The government points again and again to the need to reduce costs, but in limiting judicial review their own figures show they expect to save £3m at most; a tiny 0.03% of the Ministry of Justice’s total £8.6 billion annual budget. In fact, recent research by Matrix Chambers suggests these cuts could well be a false economy, ending up costing the government far more than they want to save.

The proposed changes mean that rather than negotiating a settlement with the council, when we can, to get a family housed quickly, we would have to pursue every case to its final conclusion through the courts. This would give greater uncertainty to the family who would have to wait longer for an outcome, clog up the courts time with cases that may otherwise have settled, and increase council’s legal costs.

The real impact of these changes has been hidden behind the shaky argument that cuts to legal aid are the best way to avoid expensive time-wasting in the courts. But in reality, this is a debate about what will happen to families like Chris’s if organisations like Shelter become powerless to help them. The consequences, almost too awful to contemplate, could see a return to scenes reminiscent of the 1960’s Cathy Come Home. The story of Cathy and her family shocked the nation when the system didn’t intervene to prevent her family becoming homeless, but instead only to take her children into care and away from their mother.

With less job security and the rising cost of living, more families are finding themselves living on a knife-edge. It can take just one thing, like a job loss or illness, to tip them into a spiral that rapidly ends in homelessness. And it can happen to anyone. Homeless families have already hit rock bottom, so when a council fails to meet their legal duty towards them, judicial review is the only safety net that’s left.

If this final appeal for justice goes, you may soon be seeing more families like Chris’s in a park, alleyway, or train station near you.

This article originally appeared in The Times on 7 November 2013. To donate to Shelter’s Christmas appeal go to shelter.org.uk

Campbell Robb Chief Executive Shelter

* This is a true story, but ‘Chris’ is not his real name.

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