Authors:Marina Sergides and Simon Mullings
Last updated:2023-11-07
A vital forum for housing lawyers
Marc Bloomfield
Marina Sergides and Simon Mullings survey the past, present and future of the Housing Law Practitioners Association.
As new co-chairs of the Housing Law Practitioners Association (HLPA), we want to introduce ourselves to readers of Legal Action.
HLPA was established in the 1980s. It provides a forum for discussion and education for those engaged in work directed towards the interests of tenants, licensees, occupiers, Gypsies and Travellers and homeless people. Membership is open to all those who use housing law for the benefit of those groups and its objectives are to promote their interests.
HLPA grew out of, and was a response to, the legislative changes of the 1970s and 1980s. These changes in housing law have set the course of housing policy for decades. The right to buy, the end of rent control, mandatory grounds for possession and other policies presaged a significant reduction in investment, both financial and political, in social housing, while burgeoning homelessness legislation was the inevitable result.
HLPA was established in the 1980s because there was an overwhelming need for it; we argue it remains as vital today as it was then. Arguably, we are in the midst of comparably profound changes in the area of housing law, with housing fitness provisions not seen for decades now back in operation, and both government and opposition in support of abolishing so called ‘no fault’ evictions.
History of HLPA
Housing law veteran David Foster was a founder member of HLPA and we know that he was a speaker at the first meeting. At the time of writing, David is sadly unwell and we send our profound best wishes to him and his family.
David Watkinson, another early member of HLPA, recalls how the organisation grew from meetings of around 20 people or so in a room in Camden Town Hall (courtesy of Robert Latham, who was a councillor at that time) to much larger venues. Over time, a constitution was established with an executive committee with allocated roles, employees were hired (a development officer and, for a while, a parliamentary liaison officer), the services of professional briefings were engaged and the annual conference begun. When asked what he is most proud of about HLPA, David’s response was that it never lost its original function of being a forum for discussion, sharing of experiences and education for those in practice in housing law on behalf of tenants and occupiers.
Between us co-chairs, we have 40 years’ experience in housing law and, like many, HLPA has been a major part of our development in this field. HLPA’s bi-monthly meetings have guided us through major developments in housing law (an electric meeting following the landmark homelessness case in the Supreme Court of Hotak/Kanu/Johnson1Hotak v Southwark LBC and other appeals [2015] UKSC 30; July/August 2015 Legal Action 50. stands out in the memory) as well as continued education about the basics since before the turn of the millennium. We have attended and spoken at meetings. We have also attended and spoken at the annual conference, which is second to none for housing law knowledge and its evening social that follows. Alongside a superbly talented executive committee, we are now proud to co-chair and serve the organisation that has served us so well over the years.
HLPA is an organisation that has stood the test of time and that, to quote David Watkinson, is, in the circumstances, a ‘pretty good achievement’.
On 14 June 2017, the fire at Grenfell Tower killed 72 people. It was the biggest tragedy in the history of social housing and the loss of life was shocking to all. It exposed the real state of properties in which people live and the carelessness and indifference for the safety of occupiers – often low-income families.
Three years on from the disaster, and halfway through the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, our members continue to represent vulnerable clients who reside in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation, and we know that there are an estimated 2.5m homes of all tenures in England that contain a serious risk to the health and wellbeing of the people living there.2Ie, owner-occupied, and private- and social-rented housing. In 2018, the figure was around 2.6m – see English Housing Survey 2018–19 headline report: section 2 housing stock tables, table AT2.3. The estimated figure assumes that the number will have fallen since 2018.
HLPA applied to be a core participant in the inquiry and made representations as to the terms of reference. We wanted to be part of the inquiry because we felt our members had the breadth of experience that would be useful and, in our application, we stated as follows:
There is a complete absence of the right of social tenants to enforce housing standards against local authorities, thereby creating a vacuum as far as accountability on local authority in this regard … HLPA members have a wealth of experience in the practical housing issues that arise … It is imperative that the inquiry grasps the expectations of tenants in practice (and those that represent them), what legal limitations there are and what challenges are realistically possible against the backdrop of the ever-diminishing provision of legal aid for tenants.
Unfortunately, we were not selected as a core participant but we will continue to feed into the inquiry at appropriate times, given that there was recognition from the chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, of the contribution we could and should be making to the inquiry. Because HLPA's focus is on the interests of the relatively powerless, we must work harder to ensure that our profile is such that our participation is essential in any forums that affect our client groups.
Where we are today
Key issues concerning the way we design, build, buy and sell, let, fund, maintain, obtain, regain, retain, and manage the places where we live are front and centre of political discourse.
Housing law is at a critical juncture. A number of key issues concerning the way we design, build, buy and sell, let, fund, maintain, obtain, regain, retain, and manage the places where we live are front and centre of political and other discourse. In addition, ideas about the methods by which disputes about housing are and should be resolved, and in what sort of venue, have become fiercely contested territory. There is a danger that the users of and applicants for housing support will be left out of these crucial discussions and subsequent policy decisions if there is not a representative body that has the knowledge and experience to promote and secure their interests.
It won’t surprise readers to know that, as co-chairs, we believe that HLPA must be at the forefront of these vital conversations. Our members are experts in the law that governs all the issues set out above. Equally, if not more importantly, we have experience of the interface between buyers, renters and the homeless, and the legal systems that should protect their rights. We know from long and collective experience what works and what doesn’t.
Every day, we champion the rights of our clients in courts and tribunals and in legal letters to local authorities, landlords and benefits offices, and more, and we believe this puts us in a unique position to speak up and fight where necessary for their interests. By way of example, in the first week of us taking up the position of co-chairs, the coronavirus lockdown commenced. On 18 March 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced a ban on all evictions for a specified period. Welcome news for those representing tenants and borrowers, except that by 23 March, when the amendments to the Coronavirus Bill were published, it was clear that the statute would deliver no such thing. Because we work on the front line of housing possession proceedings – one of us was at that time quarantined after encountering a client on a housing possession court duty scheme with severe symptoms of the COVID-19 virus – we knew that more decisive action was needed to protect tenants and borrowers, court staff and users, and our members.
HLPA supported the Law Centres Network and Shelter in lobbying for stronger measures, alongside decisive interventions from our former chair Giles Peaker and other organisations. We believe this work was instrumental in the judiciary making good the inadequacy of the bill by way of introducing Civil Procedure Rules 1998 Practice Direction 51Z, which does what the MHCLG announced in the first place. HLPA will always bring its front-line experience to bear in working to achieve its aims in a collegiate way with others, including LAG.
There are critical issues down the line. The pledge to abolish ‘no fault’ evictions is very welcome but the detail of how it will function in practice, and the legislative changes required to give it effect, are crucial to whether it will work for tenants. It is important that the detail is determined with HLPA members’ clients in mind.
Where we need to be
To be sure, there are things that HLPA must do to remain relevant to housing lawyers, experts and academics. HLPA’s national reach has, in the past, been limited and it has been justly characterised as London-centric. That must change. One development arising out of the coronavirus crisis is that we are all becoming familiar with the need to interact with each other remotely through digital technology. In May, we will host our first ever HLPA meeting by Zoom and anyone from around the country can join us. While this has been forced on us by circumstance, we see it as an opportunity for friends and colleagues from all over England and Wales to participate in our meetings. But more than that, HLPA meetings can be hosted from anywhere in the country.
This is important. HLPA’s finances are modest and it has hitherto been forced to be London-based in its meetings and annual conference by the simple fact that more housing lawyers are in London or are able to reach it relatively easily than anywhere else, and a critical mass of attendees at meetings and conferences is essential.
The new technologies that are being stress-tested in double-quick time can disrupt that logic and give HLPA the geographical reach it needs in order to be relevant. We can and do deplore the housing and community care law deserts highlighted by the work of the Law Society but there is a danger of that ringing hollow if HLPA’s activities are geographically limited to within the M25. So, while we will campaign to end the postcode lottery for housing law advice in England and Wales, we will also work to ensure that there is a practitioners association representing members throughout the countries.
Survey report
There are other developments that are imperative to HLPA’s continued success and growth. It must be clear about its aims, objectives and positioning within the wider housing sector. It has been said to us by some that HLPA needs to regain a more campaigning edge to complement its training and information-exchange profile. We agree. But it is important that any organisation that campaigns does so with the support and backing of its members. For that reason, we are conducting a survey of members and other interested parties (members who are yet to sign up!). There are several purposes to the survey but foremost among them is to take the opportunity to find out what kind of organisation HLPA collectively wants to be and what it wants to do, to reflect that back to members and those who might become so, and so to set an agenda for the future that has a clear mandate.
We are very grateful to Legal Action for the opportunity to pre-publicise the survey, which will be issued shortly. We would urge all members and anyone with an interest in joining to respond and help shape the organisation for the future.
1     Hotak v Southwark LBC and other appeals [2015] UKSC 30; July/August 2015 Legal Action 50. »
2     Ie, owner-occupied, and private- and social-rented housing. In 2018, the figure was around 2.6m – see English Housing Survey 2018–19 headline report: section 2 housing stock tables, table AT2.3. The estimated figure assumes that the number will have fallen since 2018. »