“Crisis. It feels like everything is in crisis.”
‘I don’t know how you keep on top of the detail. It was hugely impressive,’ a journalist wrote in an email, just a few hours after shadowing me as duty solicitor at the County Court at Brentford. It was a busy session – with people crammed into the waiting areas on both floors – but not unusual. The frenetic nature of the morning was exacerbated by the fact I had to run up and down stairs, yo-yoing between clients and housing officers, as the court had listed the two housing possession lists on separate floors, despite the other three courtrooms being empty.
The journalist had messaged me a few months before, as he was researching a piece on access to justice and wanted to chat to a housing lawyer. I suggested he come along to court with me one Friday to see the Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme (HPCDS) in action. He seemed keen.
We arranged to meet in the court building at 9.30 am, before the list started. The bus dropped me outside Verdict (the old magistrates’ court – now a café), so I picked up a coffee there and went to find him. He was already waiting upstairs, wearing a grey and red anorak. I thought it might be a little bright for court, but as he followed me around the building he remained surprisingly invisible.
His reaction to the morning cases wasn’t quite so hidden, though. He was visibly shocked by the detail: temporary accommodation for 10 years plus; the unaffordability of temporary accommodation rents; language barriers; delays in benefit decisions; and large deductions from universal credit payments.
The last case, a young woman accompanied by her psychiatric nurse, got called in by the usher before I could take full instructions. He looked across the table in the interview room and asked, half disbelieving, ‘Is that it? Have you got to go in?’
The case was clearly still playing on his mind after he returned to the newsroom, as he wrote in his follow-up email:
In some ways, I thought the client you saw at the end with the mental health problems was the most striking case we saw all morning. Before seeing you there was a very real chance of her getting evicted despite her issues. The judge only got to hear about them because you raised them – and you were only learning about details literally minutes before getting called in. Even then you didn’t get to finish your consultation before going before the judge. You also had your consultation with a highly vulnerable client interrupted several times either to go into court on other cases or because the usher had updates for you.
The case was a Housing Act 1988 Sch 2 Ground 8 case (eight weeks’ rent arrears) and mandatory (the judge had no discretion). The rent arrears were caused because she had been placed in temporary accommodation for just one week, seven months before, due to safeguarding concerns. Her housing benefit had stopped because of this and was still not in place. There was a lot for her to lose – an assured tenancy – but no discretion available to the judge unless public law remedies could be engaged. Most lawyers take days to prepare human rights cases; as a duty solicitor, you have minutes, sometimes less. The case had been adjourned once, without a decision from Ealing’s housing benefit department, but I convinced the judge there should be another.
I’ve called the HPCDS ‘speed-dating for housing lawyers’ before, but that belies the real issue of people losing their home, without the benefit of time and often much-needed preparation beforehand.
Spending the morning with the journalist, seeing events unravel through an independent lens, was compelling. I’ve called the HPCDS ‘speed-dating for housing lawyers’ before, but that belies the real issue of people losing their home, without the benefit of time and often much-needed preparation beforehand. In all but one of the cases, I pushed the problem a little further down a complicated, chaotic cul-de-sac, hoping that next time a benefit decision may have been made. Without access to early legal advice or benefit advice (both removed from legal aid by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO)), it’s near impossible.
The journalist and I sat and chatted after court, before he went off to Verdict to get his coffee (he was intrigued). He wanted to know how different the cases were now, post LASPO. He wanted to know how cases, especially those with vulnerable people, get as far as a possession hearing. It seemed unfathomable to him that someone so vulnerable very nearly lost their home. I replied: ‘Crisis. It feels like everything is in crisis.’
But as I travelled back to the office, I reflected on the word ‘crisis’ as it didn’t seem anywhere near sufficient. Or was it just that in the six years since LASPO we’ve become almost numb to it? So, while sitting on the bus, I looked up alternatives to the word crisis and found: catastrophe, calamity, cataclysm, emergency, disaster – and that seemed much more like it.