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Liberty aims to challenge Legal Aid Agency policy

HUMAN rights organisation Liberty has today taken the first steps towards a legal challenge against the Legal Aid Agency for blocking access to justice for residents seeking to take local authorities to court.

The Agency will not grant legal aid to help people who cannot afford to pay lawyers to challenge potentially unlawful Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs). Liberty is seeking to have this policy overturned and is calling on the public to help it succeed by donating via crowdfunding platform CrowdJustice.

Public Space Protection Orders allow councils to ban activities they deem to have a detrimental effect on the lives of others. Overzealous councils have used them to criminalise all manner of innocuous activities including gathering in groups of two or more people, lying down in public and swearing.

And many PSPOs have been used to ban rough sleeping – wrongly equating poverty with antisocial behaviour in defiance of Home Office guidance.

The Legal Aid Agency will not provide financial assistance to challenge PSPOs even if the Orders disproportionately and unjustifiably affect the poorest in society.

The body insists that concerned locals are not directly affected by the PSPO, and aggrieved residents should crowdfund in order to get their case to court instead – making it near-impossible for homeless people cruelly targeted by PSPOs to enforce their basic human rights.

If successful, the case will have major implications for anyone seeking to challenge an illegitimate PSPO.

Lara ten Caten, Lawyer for Liberty
Lara ten Caten, Lawyer for Liberty, said: 

“The Legal Aid Agency’s argument that people should rely on donations from the public to enforce their basic rights against local councils is wholly unreasonable. This stance will make it practically impossible for anyone to challenge a potentially unfair PSPO – let alone some of the most vulnerable in society.

“It is simply bizarre that a government agency is refusing to assist people in challenging abuses of power which contravene Government guidance. We hope that anyone with an interest in access to justice and enforcing basic rights will support this challenge.”

Public Space Protection Orders

The Government gave councils the power to impose Public Space Protection Orders in 2014, under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. They let local authorities control or restrict non-criminal behaviour which they believe has – or is likely to have – a “detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality”.

Violating a PSPO carries an on-the-spot penalty of up to £100. If unable to pay, those in breach could face prosecution and have to pay up to £1,000. Dozens of councils have used them to target rough sleepers, hitting people with fines they cannot possibly afford.

Represented by Liberty, a Poole resident sought to challenge her borough council’s PSPO which criminalises rough sleeping and begging in June 2018 – but the case was put on hold when the Legal Aid Agency refused to assist, insisting any litigation could simply be financed by crowdfunding instead.

PSPOs are notoriously difficult to challenge as legal cases must be lodged within six weeks of an Order coming into force. The Legal Aid Agency’s stance compounds the situation, making it almost impossible to get to court.

Liberty’s is now challenging the Agency’s position and is asking for donations from members of the public to help it succeed. The organisation has instructed Jamie Burton and Angela Fitzpatrick of Doughty Street Chambers.