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Housing loss prevention advice service: changes to County Court duty advice

Posted on 01/08/23 in Housing Matters

Housing loss prevention advice service: changes to County Court duty advice

Nicola McEwen, a professional support lawyer at Shelter, explains the basics of County Court duty advice under the new Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service and how the new early advice provisions could help people at risk of homelessness.

What is the County Court duty scheme for housing possession?

County Court duty advice is a vital lifeline for renters and mortgage borrowers who, for whatever reason, have not sought legal advice before their possession hearing. The service offers people a chance to speak to a solicitor or expert adviser, who can provide them with representation in court.  

Duty advice is a final opportunity for individuals grappling with their housing situations, many of whom are saved from eviction even at this late stage. Predictably, most people who seek help at the point they are facing possession action have other problems, often related to their financial situation.  

This important safeguard is available without any means test and is always free of charge.

An evolving system of support

The County Court duty scheme for housing possessions was first officially funded by legal aid in 2001, starting with a pilot, later widening to cover almost every County Court. Before that, informal arrangements between County Courts and local solicitors and law centres operated to supply much needed last-minute advice to people facing eviction.  

From August 2023, the scheme will change again, as the Legal Aid Agency begins to fund providers for an early advice service and widens the scope of the scheme to cover debt and benefits.

So what's changing?

From 1 August 2023, duty scheme contracts will be replaced with new wider Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service (HLPAS) contracts. These will cover: 

Early legal advice - advice before the case reaches a substantive court hearing for anyone who is at risk of losing their home. This part of the service is new. 

‘In court’ duty scheme – advice and assistance at court for people with a possession hearing. This part of the service replaces the old Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme. 

The rules about means testing are not changing. Both early advice and the court duty scheme are free, and not means tested. People accessing advice through the scheme will be asked about their financial situation where this is needed to advise them, but no one will be refused advice based on the information they provide. 

These changes have no bearing on the availability or accessibility of wider legal aid, including certificates to defend possession proceedings. 

Early legal advice

Early legal advice covers a wider range of issues than traditional duty advice or other Legal Aid Agency funded help. 

The guidance for providers specifies it covers: 

  • possession action 
  • other housing problems like security of tenure, repairs, allocation and transfers of social housing 
  • debt advice 
  • welfare benefits, including council tax reductions 

People facing the loss of their home are entitled to help from the moment they are informed that possession of their home is being sought by their landlord or mortgage lender. They will need to show the adviser written evidence of the risk. 

Evidence the provider can accept includes a: 

  • letter or notice from the landlord for lodgers 
  • notice to quit for a contractual tenant 
  • letter under the pre action protocol for social tenants 
  • notice seeking possession 
  • letter from the court notifying the person that possession proceedings have been issued 

Providers might refer or signpost for complex debt or benefits matters where they do not have sufficient specialism in-house. For example, a person who is identified as a suitable candidate for a debt relief order might be referred to an adviser with the required intermediary status.  

Early legal advice does not cover advocacy. This means people will not be able to obtain representation for benefit tribunals or debt cases that reach court. Housing and debt cases that involve loss of the home will still be covered by legal aid, subject to merits and financial eligibility. 

Early legal advice stops at the point of the first full hearing in the possession claim. 

In court duty scheme

This part of the scheme replicates the existing court duty advice service. There are no significant changes to the advice or how it is delivered. People with a possession hearing can still turn up to court and ask the usher to speak to the duty adviser for advice and representation in their hearing.  

People who have had early legal advice can still get court duty advice at the point their case progresses to a court hearing.

Referring clients for advice

Professionals who deal with people at risk of eviction can refer to a provider for early legal advice or representation at a court hearing. 

Providers under the scheme will retain their own processes for accepting referrals. There is no central point for referring a client who needs advice. A list of providers covering each County Court district is available on Gov.uk. Not every organisation that provides legal aid advice has a contract for duty advice. 

Contact a local provider to find out how to access advice through the scheme. Referring for early legal advice will give the adviser valuable extra time to identify any underlying issues putting the client's home at risk, for example historical or ongoing benefit issues, and begin to resolve these. This might be enough to persuade a landlord not to start court proceedings.

Find out more

The Legal Aid Agency has published guidance and a list of providers on Gov.uk.

People in need of help can enter their postcode and tick Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service on Find a legal aid adviser

Shelter has information on its website to help people facing possession action understand what advice and assistance is available.