If you are a housing lawyer, then working at Shelter is a dream job. The charity for homeless people employs a 17-strong legal team dedicated to handling housing disputes and housing law both for members of the public and for the wider legal community. The team is led by Carol Storer, who five years ago escaped the daily grind of her publicly funded housing practice to come in-house. Since then, she has helped develop a thriving, energetic group of lawyers at Shelter. She is also heavily involved in campaigning for improvements to civil legal aid as government funding becomes ever more constrained.
Shelter has a dual role in the realm of housing law. The charity advises clients who need urgent legal assistance to keep them off the streets, but also acts as a second-tier advice agency for solicitors. It provides an advice line that is open throughout the day and manned by at least two people, available to lawyers with specific housing law questions or who just want to brainstorm a problem. The line is funded by the Legal Services Commission.
“Whether you’re in a rural Citizens’ Advice Bureau or you’re an urban lawyer ringing from a big city with a client with a homelessness problem, you’ve always got someone you can ring up,” says Storer.
She says running the advice line has benefits for the Shelter team, too. “It gives us a very good overview of what’s happening in housing across the country. That means we can feed into Shelter’s policy work and commercial work, and that’s important for us.”
Shelter operates 35 regional advice centres around the UK, and Storer is gradually building up legal support for these. At present, the charity has three solicitors in the North West, two in the South West and one in East Anglia.
“Our aim is to have teams of solicitors where there’s not enough local provision,” Storer explains.
Local housing practices are becoming a rare breed as pressures on legal aid work grow, pushing lawyers into more lucrative areas of work, or even towards other careers. Storer finds the situation frustrating and depressing. “My generation of lawyers has spent 20 years doing legal aid work, and we just feel it’s getting so much more difficult to make money,” she says. “I love my clients, I love housing law, but I really feel that it’s such bad business.”
Storer expresses her frustration in more than words. She is playing a leading role in attempts to convince the Department for Constitutional Affairs to invest more money in civil legal aid, despite the ever-increasing cost of publicly funded criminal work. As chair of the Access to Justice Alliance – a group representing 38 organisations campaigning in this area – Storer recently spoke at a public meeting held to promote civil legal aid. The alliance’s concerns are many, and social welfare is high on the list.
“A lot of us in the advice world feel that, if we don’t ringfence the social welfare side, it’s going to continue to be pushed down,” Storer explains. “We hear the Lord Chancellor saying that progress is being made, but at the moment it seems things are becoming increasingly desperate for many people.”
But Storer is keen to make it clear that the lawyers are campaigning on behalf of those they work for. “When we say that the Government needs to fund the work better, it’s about the clients getting better access to justice,” she stresses.
Shelter’s own work is all about access to justice. The bricks and mortar of the legal team’s activities comprise urgent casework for people ringing the charity with housing problems. These are people who face imminent eviction from their homes, or who have exhausted all possible means of finding accommodation, and have nobody else to turn to. When such a case comes in, the team swings into action to obtain a High Court injunction to prevent the eviction.
Recently, Shelter’s work has expanded to include more and more cases involving asylum seekers, or issues concerning immigrant workers from Eastern Europe. Storer says that housing law for these workers is still hazy, creating constant problems.
The charity is also regularly asked to intervene in big cases where its expertise can be of use. One recent example was the November 2005 House of Lords decision in the asylum-seeker case of Limbuela v Secretary of State for the Home Department. The Lords ruled that the Government is required to offer accomodation to asylum seekers when conditions get bad enough to count as “inhumane or degrading”.
Shelter instructed Garden Court Chambers’ Stephen Knafler on Limbuela, with Knafler working pro bono. The team does as much as possible in-house, but for appearances in court it turns to barristers in a number of sets, including Doughty Street Chambers, Garden Court Chambers, 6 King’s Bench Walk, 8 King’s Bench Walk and 1 Pump Court.
Storer does not deal with in-house legal issues, which are outsourced to charity specialists Bates Wells & Braithwaite, thus enabling the legal team to devote its time to helping, supporting, campaigning and informing on housing issues. It is useful and interesting work, and Storer acknowledges this fact. “We think ourselves rather fortunate to be here,” she concludes.
Legal services manager
|Legal services manager||Carol Storer|
|Reporting to||Director of services David Ford|
|Main chambers||Doughty Street Chambers, Garden Court Chambers, 6 King’s Bench Walk, 8 King’s Bench Walk and 1 Pump Court|