'Cuts will deny justice to those who really need it'
A SPECIALIST advice service is warning that more vulnerable people risk falling into debt and losing their homes because of cuts to its funding.
Direct Help and Advice – formerly known as Derbyshire Housing Aid – in Phoenix Street, Derby, offers free advice to people on debt, welfare benefits and housing issues, such as eviction and repossession.
But from April 1, the money it receives from Legal Aid is being stopped, which means its free advice service will also come to an end. As a result, it fears that many people will lose their access to justice.
Jean Seaman, chairman of the DHA's trustees, said: "The changes coming in are massive and it only takes an unexpected redundancy notice and three or four missed mortgage or rent payments for any family to suddenly need specialist legal help but without the funds to pay for it.
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"We have a ticking timebomb effect of the changes coming in at a time of an increasing trend in repossessions and evictions, just when the public at large will be unable to get free advice on their problems, or Legal Aid to resolve them."
Suman Gupta, 44, a former council manager, found herself homeless in 2010 after being unable to pay the mortgage when she left her job due to a long-term illness.
Trying to navigate the benefits system and housing process, and being offered unsuitable accommodation, resulted in a near breakdown and she was referred to the DHA's crisis team.
The mother-of-two said its experts helped her through the process, ensuring that a suitable property was offered.
Ms Gupta, who moved into her new home last week, said: "I've never been in a situation where I have been homeless before, and understanding the process and the system was just impossible to manage without DHA. They were my companion through this journey, holding my hand every step of the way."
She said that, after being in work since the age of 15, it was "a terrible culture shock" to find herself unemployed, homeless and having to navigate the benefits system. She added: "It's so different when you have to go through the process yourself. There's no central point to get information and, if you don't qualify for Legal Aid, you have no-one to help you."
Ms Gupta said that changes to the tax and benefits system, such as the so-called "bedroom tax" – a cut in benefits for people in social housing who are considered to have a spare bedroom – were likely to leave people needing help and professional advice but unable to get it.
She said: "Without DHA, I don't think I would be housed in an adequate property to meet my needs.
"A lot more people will need help. There will be more and more people having to move home because of the bedroom tax, and no-one to give them any advice.
"Charity donations have dropped, their budgets have been reduced and it's the wrong place to cut funding.
"The long-term cost to society without someone like DHA to help us will be much higher."
Direct Help and Advice relaunched recently under the new name to better reflect the work done by its team of legal advisors and case workers.
It also runs advice drop-ins across the county and has a solicitor on standby in Derby and Burton courts.