Potential lack of advice for tenants facing possession hearings attracts condemnation
Possession proceedings are due to resume on 25 June 2020 after being suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis, but it is unclear if people faced with losing their homes will have access to the advice and representation they need.
In a consultation letter issued by the management of the County Court at Brentford in London on 21 May, plans are outlined to hold only remote hearings ‘at least until the autumn’ due to the restrictions caused by the pandemic. The court’s management team has proposed that the parties to proceedings supply telephone numbers for the hearings, which will take place every half hour. They stress the importance of serving documents well before the hearing date and for defendants to seek early advice as ‘there will almost certainly be no “duty solicitor” scheme in operation’.
Housing solicitor Sue James, director at Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, told Legal Action
: ‘I cannot see how remote hearings in possession cases can work.’ She explained that many tenants only seek advice on the day of a hearing. Assisting them usually involves having to take their instructions and then meeting the landlord’s representative, before going into the judge’s chambers. This process, she believes, is ‘not something which can be easily facilitated online’. According to Diane Astin, a housing solicitor and author of LAG’s Housing Law Handbook
, other courts in London are consulting along similar lines to Brentford.
Legal Action has collated feedback from county courts in different parts of the country and a mixed picture is emerging. Some intend to hold physical hearings for possession cases. Simon Harris, chief executive of Citizens Advice Staffordshire North and Stoke-on-Trent, said his local court is consulting on listing fewer cases and ‘prioritising those that need to be heard in person’. He believes the court is ‘looking at common-sense approaches’ and pointed out that for most of his office’s clients, remote hearings will not work ‘as they won’t necessarily have the equipment, connectivity or apps to participate’.
James believes there should ‘be a framework that all courts adopt’ across the country. She also pointed out that the government should be looking to tackle the problems that lead to possession hearings ‘long before they get to the door of the court’.
Currently, a landlord can seek mandatory possession if the tenant is eight weeks in rent arrears (see Housing Act 1988 Sch 2 Ground 8). James points out that, due to the lockdown, many people are experiencing financial difficulties and ‘in these difficult times, allowing backdating of housing benefit for longer than a month would go a long way to preventing landlords from rushing to court’.
The letter from the County Court at Brentford does say that when and how a hearing takes place ‘is ultimately a matter for the judiciary’. It also stresses that the court’s judges will try to ensure that ‘vulnerable tenants are not prejudiced by the new process’ and adjournments in such cases will be possible, including on the day of the hearing.