Legal aid restrictions for clients with multiple problems – we intervene

Homeless clients with separate care needs should be able to get legal help for their care needs if they have multiple, distinct legal problems, the High Court has ruled, after we intervened in a judicial review case.
Female beggar in London. Sitting on a bag, with a blanket round her legs and a blue hood and brown coat. A newspaper and litter is on the path as she rests with a hand out against a map as people walk past.

R on the application of Lawstop) v The Lord Chancellor is a judicial review of four cases involving homeless people who also sought community care legal aid.

We applied to the court for permission to intervene in the case and submitted written evidence and legal arguments.

The court was asked to decide whether it would have been correct for the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to refuse a ‘matter start’ in addition to one for homelessness where a client also had community care needs.

(A 'matter start' is the process that triggers a solicitor providing legal help for a client. The solicitor is later paid for work done under each matter start, if it is approved by the LAA.)

The court decided that it was possible to have more than one two matter starts in cases with separate and distinct legal problems.

Homeless clients therefore should not face an extra barrier to getting help, which is welcome news while many areas in England and Wales are precariously short on legal aid providers.

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Why did the Law Society intervene?

We know it’s important to you that access to justice and the rules of law are protected.

As your membership body, we intervene in about four legal cases each year where there's a strong point of public interest that's important to the profession.

We can help the court to reach a fair decision by providing important context:

  • about the solicitors’ profession  
  • on points of law or practice with implications for the rule of law or access to justice

For instance, many firms can no longer afford to provide legally aided work and are choosing to leave the market. Overly restrictive approaches to billing for example, places our fragile legal aid system under even greater stress.

Our interventions can help the court by shedding light on approaches that are harming the legal aid system.

What the judgment means for legal aid

“We are pleased the judge, with the help provided by the Law Society, has made it clear that the correct test for opening 'matter starts' does not involve deciding which of the legal problems is the predominant one and then allowing only for that.

“The correct test is simply whether the client has more than one separate and distinct legal problem,” said Law Society president, Lubna Shuja.

The decision means vulnerable people will face one less obstacle when trying to get the legal help they need because the law has now been clarified

Solicitors will also benefit from clearer rules so they can get on with helping their clients, without worrying about unexpected extra costs for their firm, or having to decide whether they can assist a vulnerable client without being paid.

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