The High Court has granted Liberty permission to challenge the Legal Aid Agency’s refusal to fund legal actions against new style anti-social behaviour orders which makes it ‘near-impossible’ for homeless people to enforce their basic human rights. Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) were introduced under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 but, as distinct from asbos (anti-social behaviour orders), PSPOs are geographically defined. If successful, Liberty’s challenge will pave the way for anyone – regardless of whether or not they can afford a lawyer – to bring a case against potentially unlawful PSPOs.
PSPOs are designed to stop individuals or groups committing anti-social behaviour in a public space. Home Office guidance specifies that they should not be used to target people ‘based solely on the fact that someone is homeless or rough sleeping’ as this was ‘unlikely to mean that such behaviour is having an unreasonably detrimental effect on the community’s quality of life which justifies the restrictions imposed’.
Liberty has highlighted that ‘many have been used [by councils] to ban rough sleeping – wrongly equating poverty with antisocial behaviour in defiance of this guidance’. The group represented a Poole resident in a challenge against her council’s PSPOs which, amongst other things, ban ‘begging for money, food or drink’. The Legal Aid Agency refused to provide the necessary funding for the case which was halted as a result. According to Liberty, the Legal Aid Agency’s position was that the case was of no benefit to the client. They suggested crowdfunding instead.
Lara Ten Caten, lawyer for Liberty, said, it was ‘simply bizarre that a government agency is refusing to assist people in challenging abuses of power which contravene Government guidance’.
The Legal Aid Agency has said that they can ‘only grant legal aid where the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) and regulations allow’. It said: ‘Legal aid may be available for Public Spaces Protection Orders 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.’ Liberty has pointed out that ‘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.’