Sue James speaks to housing law titan, Andrew Arden QC, about his early life, his complicated relationship with the law and the public service ethos that has driven his incredible career, a new chapter of which is just beginning.
Andrew Arden in Zakynthos (or Zante), Greece, 1982
‘I don’t know why everybody finds me so difficult,’ Andrew tells me. It’s a throwaway remark, and I’m not expected to answer, but it’s a theme that we return to throughout the evening. I had been asked by LAG to interview Andrew as he was retiring, but that wasn’t quite what it seemed.
I arrive, via the Northern Line, on a cold winter’s evening. As I walk I can see the pub ahead, twinkling with Christmas lights and warm invitation. Festive songs play throughout the evening, although I was not aware how prevalent the Christmas spirit would be until much later.
We’re at The Crown, Islington, a small north London pub, tucked at the end of a residential street. Andrew had chosen it (with a prompt from me), as it is a location featured in the novels he writes under the pseudonym, Bernard Bannerman. It was Bernard who recently interviewed
Andrew, also for LAG. He asks me what I think of the piece. I tell him it needs an edit.
Andrew’s concerned about the location of the table. He’s not sure if it’s suitable for an interview, as it’s almost Christmas and the pub is lively. He gets us moved to a quieter part, where he orders a pint of Pride and I settle on a bottle of Italian Essere Merlot – to be shared.
As we start to chat, Andrew’s focus, understandably, is on the recent break-up of Arden Chambers, but I’m much more interested in finding out what drove him to be the force that he is: a founder of the housing law movement; a set of chambers; a Law Centre; and also a writer and novelist.
If there was such a thing as sliding doors, then Andrew would have been a successful writer. He tells me he was writing books, plays and poetry from around the age of 13. His uncle had promised him a typewriter for his bar mitzvah and he recalls ‘spending about a month sitting in front of the window waiting for the postman to deliver it’.
He talks fondly of his grandfather who arrived in the UK with seven and sixpence and became a successful businessman, selling clothing to M&S. He has less happy memories of his father, who he describes as ‘overbearing’, but who left the family home when he was seven; and of his childhood: ‘I have no recollection of a single happy moment during it.’
I ask him if this is why he went travelling after school – to escape home. He doesn’t think so, he feels it was more to do with the lack of any direction: ‘I had no guidance from my mother, my father, or my stepfather, I was charging around like a bull in a china shop.’
With four O levels, he started a summer job in the library at the offshore Radio Caroline, which turned into a full-time post. He’d been on the ship a few times and from there went travelling. He was very ‘taken with America’, but his father wouldn’t support him to study there, so he returned to the UK and took a crammer course to get his A levels. Law was suggested as an option for him, as it was felt the tutor would be able to handle him.
I ask Andrew what he likes about the law. ‘Nothing,’ he replies.
I don’t quite believe him. I think he’s confusing law with lawyers, who he doesn’t particularly like. Although his pupil masters (what an archaic term, I think, as I write), Tony Gifford and Michael Mansfield, were two major influences in his life. It was through researching for Tony that he became attracted to landlord and tenant and local government law, which he views as a public service job, along with legal aid. He tells me, ‘I never did law for the money.’
He feels the adversarial system is ‘dominated by meretricious, Oxbridge forms of argument and thinking, that are not pro-women’, and is ‘a hard place for anyone with sensitive intelligence’.
I ask him about the proposal for ‘flexible’ court hours, which he thinks is appalling: ‘If you’ve ever had a co-option of a good idea and translated it into a bad one, then that’s it.’ And while in the same territory I tackle court closures, which he thinks are a disgrace. ‘The whole administration of justice has been sidelined, marginalised, under-resourced, and no government that’s ruled by law can have anything but shame for what they have done,’ he exclaims.
I was never anti anyone, just pro housing, trying to make it work for everyone.
Andrew’s strong public service ethos has permeated his practice and his writing. He talks about housing law as tribal. I agree with him. He tells me the idea behind Arden Chambers was to act for everyone, landlords and tenants: ‘I was never anti anyone, just pro housing, trying to make it work for everyone.’ At times he thinks he’s broken through – he mentions a HLPA talk during Kay1Kay and others v Lambeth LBC and others  UKHL 10.
in 2006 when he spoke about being less partisan.
It’s while doing the work of local government law that he’s met ‘some of the best public servants, who were absolutely committed to public service and people’s rights’. It makes me think of the Court of Appeal case of Robinson
,2Robinson v Hammersmith and Fulham LBC  EWCA Civ 1122.
which Andrew and I worked on together. The housing review officer, Roch Maher, who was often my opponent, was a strong supporter of the Law Centre and social justice. Roch died last year after a long illness, but left me Tom Bingham’s book, The rule of law
. I tell Andrew that inside was a message from Roch, which read: ‘Thanks for always keeping me on the right side of the law.’
Although not keen on court, Andrew calls Robinson a ‘good victory’ because it stamped out a practice that many authorities were operating, of not housing 17-year-olds. It’s an example of when a case can be a good solution for everyone, as in Andrew’s philosophy. And how housing can be transformational, as Robinson went on to get her A levels, a degree and is now working to change other people’s lives.
‘No one should make their living owning another person’s home,’ Andrew tells me, describing himself as ‘old-fashioned’, as he still believes in full security, controlled rents and virtually no private sector housing. As he speaks, I wonder if being a housing lawyer is political, or becomes so; when you see the conditions that people have to live in, it changes you.
Andrew isn’t the first housing lawyer I’ve interviewed. He seems slightly affronted by the description of my previous interviewees as ‘my housing law heroes’. I tell him that he’s more of a godfather of housing law, and I mean it. So much of Andrew’s everyday conversation is deeply rooted in the subject, and notorious housing cases spill out, without thought. It has been his life.
He describes housing as a political football, that housing ministers change as fast as some clubs change managers. He calls it an abomination. The same could be said of lord chancellors, I reply. I ask him about the current consultation on a housing court. ‘We are discussing a housing court, and that’s what I was writing about in 1978,’ he replies. ‘Well, there has to be a judge, there has to be legal aid.’
I ask him if he feels on the edge of things. Of not fitting in? ‘Yes’, he replies. He was from a Jewish background, didn’t go to Oxbridge, wasn’t prepared to compromise. He feels set apart from other lawyers. ‘It’s very ostrich, very meretricious,’ he says of the courts. When he uses the word barristers he draws out the name, so they become ‘bari-stars’.
I’m interested in why he didn’t become a judge; was this because he didn’t want to judge others? ‘No, I’ll judge others any old day,’ he replies. Which makes me laugh and leads us to Arden Chambers.
‘I expected Arden Chambers to go on. I really thought I would see out my career as the elder statesman of Arden Chambers,’ he reflects. There’s a sadness to his words, and I feel quite moved. Andrew notices the bottle of wine is empty. I order him a large glass of Merlot, as I think he’ll need it.
Arden was the only set of chambers that made housing its primary subject. He says that he didn’t want to be head of chambers, but it was suggested, and it seemed to work. What was key for Andrew was controlling the quality and enforcing a standard. It was pioneering.
Although successful for 25 years, Andrew worries that people won’t remember that, they will just focus on the break-up, which hasn’t been an easy one. We talk about the reasons why. I suggest that it might be in part because of the cuts to housing legal aid, as barristers moved to other fields. He tells me the work was there, but they didn’t have the members to do it.
I ask him if he was too big to work with, in terms of brand and reputation. ‘Yes, it’s an astute observation,’ he replies. There were no other silks at Arden. Was his star too bright, I ask? He doesn’t think so. ‘Look at Justin Bates,’ he suggests, as an example of someone who is currently excelling in his practice, having just been instrumental in the drafting of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018.
The table has been booked for a two-hour slot, which we are very close to reaching. I’m concerned I won’t have enough for a story, as so much has been ‘off the record’, but luckily the pub isn’t too busy and we can stay.
‘I’ve always been surrounded by controversy and animosity,’ Andrew says. ‘I don’t know why I inspire these strong feelings.’ I don’t offer a view, and so he asks me directly: ‘You’re on the other side, can you tell me why?’ I pause before answering, but admit he has a difficult and challenging reputation. He seems relieved by my honesty. He’s been told that he makes people feel small, that he belittles them. He puts this down to his failure to compromise.
I ask him what his wife would say about him, whether she would say he has a softer side. ‘You’d have to ask her,’ he replies. My guess would be, yes. I certainly saw one when he asked about my sons and wanted to see pictures. ‘They are so handsome, you must be pleased’ was the genuine response. He shows me pictures of his own daughter, Emma, who he describes as a very talented musician, and strikingly beautiful. She is. She’s also what he calls his greatest achievement, followed by crafting housing law as a subject, backed up by chambers. I ask him if he supported her to follow her dreams, in a way he wasn’t able to. ‘I’d love to think that’ is the reply.
The incongruity between the man and the reputation is most stark when I’m invited to see Andrew’s garden on my way home. It is like stepping through a door into a magical world. He describes it as his ‘fantasy land’. Twinkling fairy lights traverse the entire garden, glowing stars and Santa shapes adorn walls and fences, moving reindeer and penguins glisten in the dark, and much, much more. He is excited to show me. I wonder who it’s for.
There’s a certain circularity to where he has ended up. Having started with Michael Mansfield as his pupil master, he’s now at Michael’s new chambers, Nexus. Andrew describes this event as ‘one of those fortuitous things,’ as it was while getting a new battery for a watch, in what he describes as a Dickensian-type jeweller in King’s Cross, that he bumped into Michael. He tells me he’s going to practise from Nexus and hopes to ‘generate a bit more housing law there’. If history does repeat itself, then I think that’s very likely.
As we leave the pub, I know (by now) that Andrew means well when he turns to me and says, ‘Well, that’s been much more enjoyable than I expected.’ It was for me too.
Hero in the law
Bloomsbury and Marylebone County Court
Favourite animal case
‘No’ is the answer
Cannot relate to question
In Who’s Who one of my hobbies is Southern Comfort
‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling’, The Righteous Brothers
‘I Got You Babe’, Sonny & Cher
Favourite lawyer in TV/film/book
Dave Woolf – a lawyer in the Bernard Bannerman novels