Shelter's online resources
Shelter Scotland’s approach to online advice and information, and how it can help solicitors to tap into the law around housing and homelessness
On balance, it seems fair to say that housing law is not the bread and butter of most practising solicitors. Housing issues may well arise as part of other legal issues, such as matrimonial disputes or private client matters. Nevertheless, they are often viewed as an aside to the main legal issue, be that a divorce or a will, to name but two examples.
Certainly, a proportion of practitioners (particularly those in general practice) will have encountered legal questions on leasing, buy-to-let mortgages, problems with securities due to sitting tenants or non-payments of monies in relation to second securities. But how many can say they feel adequately versed and prepared in housing law and have access to what they need to know at their fingertips?
How many would think of alternatives to eviction or repossession where the problem presented by a client was non-payment of rental or mortgage monies respectively? How many are up to speed on the latest OFT guidance, by which lender clients are bound? How many would think of a power of attorney as being a proactive way for a client to protect family members from future homelessness?
I suspect that few would, perhaps because, as with many legal problems, the black letter law does not take account of surrounding circumstances. I can accept that this is not necessarily the function of legislation per se. I also suspect that housing is not the main heading under which clients present their problems. Indeed, for a large proportion of clients who seek advice from solicitors in private practice, "housing" will not traditionally have been a problem for them. However, with recent economic activity, it has become clear to all that more and more people are in financial difficulty and this has many implications for a wider group of people.
Access to information
Against this background, it is suggested that, if practitioners were presented with more information in relation to the practical application of housing and homelessness legislation, it might help them, first, to see the legal problems differently and, secondly, to help their clients to find their own way forward with some of these dilemmas.
Of course, lawyers endure a vigorous training regime before qualifying and are armed with the skills to research and apply new areas of law as clients present them. In addition to this, the education of post-qualified experience cannot be underestimated. During my time in private practice, I myself have been presented with a range of challenging circumstances related to housing and have had to rush to the library to consult the relevant textbooks and authorities.
In the past, this has always been the way to go but, in my recent career with Shelter Scotland, I have realised that it does not have to be this way.
Many people will not automatically associate Shelter Scotland with the provision of legal advice and information per se. However, in recent years the charity has adopted a somewhat visionary approach to the provision of advice and information resources: Shelter Legal and Get Advice. The former is a subscriber resource for professionals (the annual rate starts at £200 for up to five users, with a free trial option), and the latter is a free service for the general public. These resources have developed, changed and improved since their inception but one pivotal concept has remained constant: the provision of clear, accurate and user-focused legal information delivered in plain English.
Delivered online, these two resources are more than "just a website". For a start, the editorial team have very relevant and diverse specialised backgrounds including law, housing advice, welfare rights and academia. From the outset, the focus has been client- or person-centred, with an emphasis on what people need to know and what will help them to move forward with their legal problems. Not that we presume to solve problems – we understand that legal problems are more complicated than that.
It is impossible in a short article to do justice to the scale of these resources. As well as advice and information provision, they also have a wider and much more subtle role in relation to public legal education and access to justice: topics for another day perhaps. For now, the most important point to emphasise is that Shelter Legal and Get Advice are very important national resources which solicitors, and other professionals, can easily tap into when approaching a client’s housing issues.
To illustrate some of the main features, both resources contain a variety of online assessments such as a tenancy checker and a homelessness assessment. We are also mindful of issues pertinent to the current economy and have developed features such as six steps to dealing with mortgage arrears, and we have specific information for landlords too, including coverage of the recent new obligation on landlords to inform a local authority of their intention to evict a tenant. There is also coverage of antisocial behaviour legislation, the landlord registration system and other issues relevant for landlord clients.
Get Advice is aimed at the general public and features a very useful glossary that can help clients to understand many of the legal terms that are common parlance for solicitors but, nevertheless, be confusing and seem like jargon to those not in the legal profession.
It also prepares clients for what may lie ahead: perhaps reducing the number of fraught phone calls that a solicitor may receive in the midst of vital court appearance preparation. For example, Get Advice tells them what to expect if due in court – from what to wear, to who’s who in the courtroom, to what the layout of the court will be. Bear in mind that, whilst this is obvious to solicitors in practice, many clients will never have been in court before and the experience can be intimidating and stressful. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Shelter Legal covers similar content but, as mentioned above, it is a subscriber resource aimed at professionals – who may not be familiar with housing and homelessness law. Legislation is cited so practitioners can see the source of the information and trace it if so required.
For advisers and other professionals without a legal background, there is a plain English explanation of legal processes such as reponing note procedure, so that clients can be supported and reassured.
We are always working on improvements, one of which is the development of a case law database.
Basis for advice
Of course, online resources have their limits. There is simply no substitute for a face-to-face advice service and legal representation in court when it comes to crisis situations or when professional intervention is required. Shelter Legal and Get Advice can never replace such vital assistance and they are not trying to.
However, what our resources can do is provide information, prepare people for what lies ahead, inform legal professionals of the law in an area beyond their main areas of practice and, overall, support clients, solicitors and other professionals in the application of the law in relation to housing and homelessness.
Finally, it is important to emphasise that a vital part of our work is keeping all the content up to date and accurate. This is a massive task involving regular monitoring of a wide variety of sources covering many different areas of law, not just housing. We also keep abreast of relevant changes in policy and the progression of law through both the Scottish and Westminster parliaments.
Joyce Horsman is a qualified solicitor who left practice four years ago be a legal web editor for Shelter Scotland. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Readers can access ‘Get Advice’ free of charge by visiting www.shelter.org.uk/getadvice or subscribe to ‘Shelter Legal’ (or sign up for a free trial) by visiting www.shelter.org.uk/legal.