Homeless protesters denied legal aid in case against Manchester City Council

Article published: Saturday, July 25th 2015

The case to obtain a ban against homeless protest camps within Manchester city centre had to be adjourned this week due to the defendants being refused legal aid on the day of the hearing.

Supporters of the homeless camp gathered for a solidarity protest during the court hearing.

During the hearing that took place at Manchester Civil Justice Centre on Tuesday 21st July, two defendants and residents of the homeless camp in Castlefield found out that they weren’t given legal aid part way through the court case. Outside the court supporters of the homeless camp took part in a  ‘Solidarity Sleepover’ demonstration with sleeping bags and other camping gear to protest against Manchester City Council’s attempt to ban all camps in the city centre.

Solicitors for the defendants had asked for legal aid a month ago, when the case was adjourned to this week. Ben Taylor, of WTB solicitors, has been representing the homeless protest campaigners since the first eviction case in April: “Half way through the hearing the legal aid agency told me, by way of an email, that legal aid has been refused.”

He said he was “absolutely appalled” about the way the legal aid agency has treated his clients’ application for public funding. The defence team had requested an adjournment of the case at the start of the hearing before they knew the application had been refused because both claimants didn’t pass the claimant’s test.

Elizabeth Hodgkinson, defendant in the case and resident of the homeless camp, explained that she had lost her flat because of benefit sanctions.  “I don’t want to be on benefits because they are going to sanction me whenever they want for nothing”, she said. She has been homeless for almost ten months and spoke of the difficulties she faces finding work or work experience while homeless.

Elizabeth Hodgkinson from the homeless camp outside court.

The case was first heard on the 29th June when Manchester City Council sought to evict the protest camps from St Ann’s Square and Castlefield along with a controversial injunction banning all further homeless protest camps from the city centre. The case was adjourned to allow time for the two defendants to apply for legal aid funding through the Exceptional Case Funding mechanism, as they did not qualify for the usual form of legal aid because neither of them are receiving social security benefits of any kind.

Daniel Mackenzie, one of the organisers of the solidarity demo outside the court, has been a supporter of the camp since it began in Albert Square and was one of the authors of an open letter in support of the homeless camp. “They are a vulnerable group, who have come together and empowered themselves and have sought to make their voice known”, he said, “which is a really spectacular thing in this day and age, particularly if you are homeless.”

He added: “The homeless camp have done great service to the city and to the public to raise awareness and show that this is a peaceful protest and that the stereotypes that people have about homeless people are misinformed.”

For him, the way the council have treated them is “abhorrent and disgraceful”. He said: “It’s doubly shocking that it’s a Labour council that has pursued these measures against the homeless protesters.”

District Judge Ranj Matharu was exasperated at the length of time it was taking to determine whether the case would proceed. She ordered an adjournment until 30th July, accepting the defence’s argument that to proceed without legal aid funding, and therefore without legal representation, would be against the principle of ‘equality of arms’. The judge reminded the court that she had cleared her lists and allocated a full day for the hearing, saying that the hearing will go ahead even with no public funding.

Hodginkson said she felt confident about the prospect of possibly having to defend herself in court: “I know that we have the right kind of support behind us who will talk us through all the legal jargon that we need for representing ourselves.”

Conrad Bower

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