Renters suffer more legal problems than home owners. With numbers on the rise, it’s time services were tailored to their needs.
Generation rent continues to grow. The number of local authority and housing association households has increased only slightly in the past six years, but numbers of private renters have ballooned by over a million in the same period. They now make up 19 per cent of total households, up from 14 per cent six years ago.1English Housing Survey: Household report 2008–09, DCLG, 27 October 2010; English Housing Survey: Households 2013–14, DCLG, 16 July 2015.
Overall, 36 per cent of households now rent their homes. According to new research, many renters face legal problems related to housing and other issues. Perhaps most disturbingly, nearly half of them seem to attribute legal difficulties to bad luck rather than something for which they need expert advice.
The Legal Problems of Renters2Pascoe Pleasence and Nigel Balmer, The Legal Problems of Renters: Findings from How People Understand and Interact with the Law, Legal Education Foundation, June 2015.
found that one in 10 tenants had a legal problem relating to their accommodation, such as disrepair or illegal eviction. They were also twice as likely compared with mortgage-payers to face other types of legal problem. For example, in the second wave of data collection, which took place in 2012 (see below), 3.2 per cent of mortgage-payers had experienced a benefit problem, as opposed to 7.7 per cent of private tenants. Neighbour disputes, relationship breakdown and debt were other areas in which renters experienced substantially more problems than home owners.
Overall, respondents to the survey on which the report is based were overwhelmingly likely to attribute their problems to ‘bad luck’ as opposed to a legal or other reason. For the rented housing group, 47 per cent said a problem they experienced was a matter of bad luck, with social (16 per cent) and legal (15 per cent) being the next highest scoring categories. This would seem to indicate that renters tend not to think in terms of legal rights when faced with a problem. This view is supported by other findings in the report.
Only 40 per cent of renters recognised that a solicitor could help with a housing problem.
While a large proportion of respondents (88 per cent) had some idea about solicitors (eg what they do), only 40 per cent recognised that a solicitor could help them with a housing problem. Less than 10 per cent believed a legal expenses insurance helpline could assist them and only 30 per cent saw a law centre as a potential source of housing advice.
A staggering 73 per cent of rented housing respondents chose to cope with a problem alone or just with some informal advice. Only one in 10 would choose to get help from the advice sector or a law firm. Renters’ housing problems took a long time to deal with, as nearly half were unresolved after a year and more than a quarter after two years.
The report is based on the English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Panel Survey. This actually comprises two large-scale surveys of the public’s experiences of civil legal problems carried out in 2010 and 2012. The data therefore predates the drastic cuts to the scope of civil aid that were introduced from April 2013.
There is anecdotal evidence from the practitioners LAG speaks to that the cuts to legal aid are leading to a widespread belief among the public that they cannot get help with legal problems. An updated survey is therefore needed, which could also pick up any effects caused by the legal aid cuts. Unfortunately, the CSJPS was a victim of government cuts. Without this or similar research, it is difficult to understand the true scale of the need for civil legal advice.
Research carried out on a random sub-set of respondents to the main survey found that they scored an average of 71 per cent on a series of questions on a housing scenario that was put to them.3Pascoe Pleasence, Nigel Balmer and Catrina Denvir, How People Understand and Interact with the Law, PSSR, June 2015.
However, a third incorrectly believed that a tenant in one of the scenarios was not in breach of her tenancy agreement by not paying rent over a dispute with the landlord, which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the law. Young people were least likely to answer any of the questions correctly.
Overall, the findings of this report paint a worrying picture of renters being unclear about their legal rights, not seeking appropriate help and their problems taking longer to resolve. The report also finds that renters are least likely to seek information from the internet to help resolve their housing difficulties (it was only used in around 12 per cent of problems). Generation rent, it seems, needs more than websites to help it.
Policy-makers need to respond to the findings of this report by prioritising legal education and advice targeted at renters, covering not just housing law, but other legal issues, too. ■