Courts urged to do more for debtors

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FREE LEGAL and welfare advice to provide a final safety net for families at risk of losing their homes and possessions through debt should be available at county courts, according to consumer rights campaigners, writes Heather Mills.

The continuing recession and mounting unemployment is resulting in more and more debtors appearing in court. Last year, the number facing proceedings rose by more than 50,000 to 189,557.

But of the 267 county courts in England and Wales only 30 have independent advice schemes available on the premises to help people avoid homelessness and other major implications of debt. The National Consumer Council says the schemes can have a significant impact on the judicial process - by, for example, avoiding repossessions and identifying counter claims.

A report by the council yesterday called on the Lord Chancellor and the Legal Aid Board to look at expanding the schemes. It found that many people will not have had any independent advice before they turn up at court.

The council estimates that it would cost about pounds 1m to fund schemes in the 85 busiest courts - a small price to pay when set against the cost of rehousing homeless families, it says.