NGO takes Legal Aid Agency to court for ‘blocking access to justice’ for rough sleepers

Afroze Fatima Zaidi

Human rights charity Liberty has announced it will be taking the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to court for refusing to help rough sleepers. Homeless people are unable to get Legal Aid when local councils issue them with Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs). Liberty has said LAA is “blocking access to justice” for those who can’t afford to challenge councils on their own.

PSPOs

Local councils can use PSPOs to ban activities that they feel might have a detrimental effect on others. However, PSPOs are frequently being used to penalise rough sleepers, despite guidance to the contrary from the government. Liberty has claimed that the use of PSPOs by local councils against homeless residents is an “abuse of power”.

Meanwhile, LAA has said it has not been empowered by the government to handle PSPO cases. Liberty is now challenging this approach in the high court. In a statement on its website, Liberty has said:

The Legal Aid Agency will not provide financial assistance to challenge PSPOs even if they disproportionately and unjustifiably affect the poorest in society – insisting concerned locals are not directly affected by an Order…

The Agency’s position makes it near-impossible for homeless people cruelly targeted by PSPOs to enforce their basic human rights.

Criminalising homelessness

Liberty lawyer Rosie Brighouse has said:

Many local authorities are criminalising those in need, but the Legal Aid Agency’s position robs all but the wealthy of their ability to challenge council abuse of power.

It is essential this case goes ahead so that anyone can challenge illegitimate Public Space Protection Orders.

PSPOs are not the only example of homeless people being criminalised. The charity Crisis issued a report in 2017 on how councils are targeting rough sleepers with legal measures:

Drawing on a survey of local councils, the report shows how more than one in three (36%) are targeting rough sleepers with enforcement measures. Of these councils, common measures included Criminal Behaviour Orders (45 per cent), Dispersal Orders (35 per cent), Public Space Protection Orders (17 per cent) and actions under the Vagrancy Act (27 per cent).

A spokesperson for LAA has said:

The Legal Aid Agency can only grant legal aid where the LASPO Act and regulations allow. Legal Aid may be available for (PSPOs) via exceptional case funding, subject to a statutory test to demonstrate a risk of breach of human rights, and the usual means and merits tests.

The Home Office has issued guidance to prevent councils from using antisocial behaviour powers to penalise rough sleepers. However, if councils go against this guidance, homeless residents are currently unable to access funds to challenge these orders in court.

Featured image via Flickr/Garry Knight.

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Afroze Fatima Zaidi