Report: Rachel Moon gives evidence to the Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights & Civil Justice Committee

Our senior solicitor, Rachel Moon, attended the Scottish Parliament yesterday on behalf of Govan Law Centre to give evidence to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee in respect of Access to Justice. This is her report from the Committee evidence session.

We were grateful for the invitation to give our evidence and it was an important opportunity to work with colleagues across the sector to highlight our shared current experiences but also our unique perspectives.

A shared experience amongst colleagues was the lack of capacity services we were experiencing in the face of huge increases in demand as we see the impact of Brexit, Covid 19, inflation running at 10% and the cost of living crisis. There was an acknowledgment that the issues were only going to get more difficult with increased repossessions and evictions and increased levels of debt.

We agreed with Shelter Scotland that people were being failed with the crisis in housing; with waiting lists at every level – housing application, management transfer, emergency accommodation. We fully support the suggestion that housing is a fundamental right, it being the very foundation of rights to home and family life. We fully support the suggestion that access to justice should be viewed in the same way as access to healthcare. And the suggestion that civil legal aid is a public service; many lawyers working in legal aid certainly feel this to be true.

We wanted to use the opportunity at this hearing to highlight the importance and value for money that the community law centre model provides and the role that they have in access to justice at a casework level but also a strategic and policy level.  We called upon the Scottish Government to properly resource advice agencies at initial advocacy levels , and up to strategic litigation level – and to see it as an investment in progressing equalities law and social justice. The law centre model is best placed to do so with lots of cases coming through its doors every week and has the best scope for identifying patterns and opportunities.

We mentioned the case of the family in a high rise flat who had a child with autism; where expert reports showed that property was dangerous as the child tried to climb out of the window balcony on many occasions and that the property was not suitable. This could be replaced with the single mum of a child with asthma where black mould covers the ceiling and their curtains. Or the elderly man with cancer who is unable to use stairs.

In the midst of the housing crisis where there is a lack of suitable accommodation, we feel powerful to be in the position to challenge these cases quickly – they can move from adviser to lawyer to solicitor advocate who can draft the petition to Judicially Review the provision of unsuitable accommodation – but as we heard during the hearing, many organisations are struggling to reach the stages of legal representation. Indeed, the perspective of the Faculty of Advocates in this respect should be sought: if legal aid rates impacts on their being able to provide advocacy in these cases, then there is a very real impact on the ultimate provision of social justice work.

In many ways, Law Centres are the embodiment of access to justice – working in the heart of under-represented communities, in under-funded, increasingly complex areas of law, they provide a multi-disciplinary solution for clients; giving people respect and dignity in their challenge against public bodies. It takes grit and passion to work in community law centres particularly against the backdrop of funding cuts. The staff working there are doing so for less money and less security than they can get elsewhere. We echoed the concerns of others in the legal aid sector about being able to retain and protect staff.  

We gave evidence to the committee that our funding meant that we were postcode restricted and turned away enquiries on a daily basis from outside of Glasgow; taking on cases on a pro bono basis only where we could see a strategic element. All parties were in agreement that where someone lived created an obvious impact on access to justice; with the legal aid board describing a lack of legal aid representation as ‘deserts’.

Similarly, people were excluded digitally if they could not access remote appointments. We were in agreement that provision of advice should be a hybrid model where the client chooses face to face, a telephone appointment or digital chat – we gave evidence that in our experience many clients prefer telephone appointments and there are less no shows and was certainly more efficient for solicitors and caseworkers.

Court work was more efficient and expeditious by written submission, telephone and remote hearing – but crucially, this should not discount the fact that many do not have representation and court hearings must remain open to hybrid options to ensure active participation. The Sheriff Court should be able to provide crucial information in this respect: are there more decrees being granted without appearance?

In the new remote working world, we see many clients in our office space who feel digitally excluded or excluded by way of literacy or language. We see this as an issue at every level; from clients looking for assistance in doing a housing application or getting on a housing list; or filling in their online journal for Universal Credit. We explained at the hearing that people will fall through the cracks if we assume digital literacy.  We submitted that this was another reason why having a physical space in the community was so crucial.

There are many challenges facing access to justice as we ride the tidal wave of issues post the pandemic and cost of living crisis. It is imperative for the future of access to justice that we ensure that the Equality Act and housing and homelessness legislation is ultimately enforceable, by all. If the most vulnerable in society have no options to ultimately challenge public bodies then our progressive legislation may as well be purely decorative.

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