Carol Storer speaks to Siobhan McGrath, president of the First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber), about her career and her role at the tribunal.
I have to declare an interest. When I was a practising solicitor doing a mixture of housing cases, there were a few barristers I regularly instructed and one of them was Siobhan McGrath. Her legal knowledge was great and clients adored her. So when Legal Action wanted someone to interview her, I was very keen to do so. I donned my mask, risked public transport and headed over to Alfred Place in Bloomsbury, where she is based. I managed to set off the alarms in the security arch several times, but once I had finally navigated that and headed up to Siobhan’s spacious if functional room, I said ‘Yes please’ to a cup of tea. She then laughed when I was mortified that she was going out to make it herself. Of course she was.
Route to law
Siobhan comes from Middlesbrough and attended state schools – indeed, she even went to a secondary modern as there were no places at any grammar school when she passed the eleven-plus. The school then became a comprehensive, so she remained there. She studied law and social science(s) at the University of Sussex and she really wanted to be an employment solicitor. She was living in an area of heavy industry and that seemed a natural choice. Having taken a year off, Siobhan decided at the last minute to become a barrister. She joined 4 Brick Court, then Cloisters, where she was a pupil of Michael Mansfield QC. She went to 11 King’s Bench Walk before moving to Arden Chambers in 1998. During this time, she was joint editor of the Housing Law Reports and the Encyclopedia of Housing Law and Practice.
Becoming a judge
Siobhan became a tribunal judge in 1999. By then, she had four small children, and it seemed like a role that offered the flexibility that she needed. The Rent Assessment Committee wanted a three-days-a-week vice-president, so she applied and was appointed. She became the senior president in 2000. She also sits as a recorder, a deputy High Court judge and, of course, as the president.
If there is a case with an important issue, Siobhan is likely to sit. For example, she sat on a tribunal with Tim Powell (regional judge for London, First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber) and formerly of Powell Forster) and Helen Bowers MRICS (a surveyor) to hear a case about insurance premiums involving Kensington and Chelsea RLBC.1Various residential leasehold properties in Kensington and Chelsea LON/00AW/LSC/2018/0465, 22 June 2020.
The premiums had increased because of the issues that came to light with the Grenfell Tower fire.
She also sits in the County Court at Central London, hearing either the general or the Chancery list, and as a deputy High Court judge on the Western Circuit, where the cases that come before her are very diverse.
When Siobhan mentions some of the other people who sit in the tribunal, it feels like a roll call of some of the greats involved in housing law over the past few decades: Robert Latham, Stephen Reeder, Peter Ellis, Sylvester Carrott, Jim Shepherd, Nicholas Nicol, Professor Helen Carr and Professor Caroline Hunter. Professor Julian Farrand2See his obituary at October 2020 Legal Action 6.
was a Rent Assessment Committee member.
Not all of the legends are lawyers. Mel Cairns MCIEH, a health and housing consultant, sits on tribunals. Back in the 1980s, when I worked in a Law Centre dealing with many disrepair cases, it was a revelation to discover the Health and Housing Group, which Mel and others had set up. To have completely reliable experts who charged a reasonable fee for their inspections made a huge difference to the number of cases we could take on and the amount of successful cases we had.
What it does
I was slightly unsure about what cases are heard in the First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber). I was surprised at the number of areas covered
. I knew about leasehold disputes and leasehold enfranchisement. I am old enough to remember rent control mechanisms for fair and market rents. From my conveyancing days, I knew that Land Registry issues were covered. But the list of issues is very wide, including HMO3House in multiple occupation.
appeals, disputes about park homes, and disputes between agricultural tenants and landlords in relation to certain farming tenancies.
The chamber deals with 11,000 cases a year4Senior president of tribunals’ annual report 2020, Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 29 July 2020.
and Siobhan tells me that 80 per cent of the more complex cases have hearings within 20 weeks. The rent cases are heard in 10 weeks. There are five regional divisions with five regional tribunal judges for the Residential Property Division of the Chamber and a principal judge for the Land Registration Division.
The value of claims across the different types of cases is wide-ranging. There can be a dispute about the RPI increase in rent (a few pounds) or a high-value enfranchisement case where there is disagreement between the parties over millions of pounds.
Seventy per cent of those appearing are unrepresented, Siobhan says, and there is, unsurprisingly, a higher level of representation for landlords. Does she feel that the hearings are fair? She explains that the panels try to get to the root of the case. The property panels can consist of solicitors, barristers or academics. In cases where experts in repair sit, Siobhan feels that their knowledge helps to bring about a meaningful conclusion, and she contrasts this with procedures in the county court. She acknowledges the importance of being able to recover costs and poses the question: if there was an ability to recover costs, why wouldn’t you want a panel with a surveyor on to decide your case where the case is about repair?
The president’s role
When I ask what the president does, Siobhan immediately answers: ‘My role is to provide the vision.’ She needs to communicate that to regional judges, members and staff. Staff work on cases from beginning to end, so there is continuity for all the parties. She has to deal with HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) on resources and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) on policy, move tribunal work online, work on improving how hearings are delivered, and deliver training, the latter of which surprised me. I had a look at Sir Ernest Ryder’s introduction to his final annual report5Senior president of tribunals’ annual report 2020.
and noted the importance he places on training. He comments:
Our lead judges devote a considerable period of time every year to deliver that training and we are very grateful to the college and to the institute for the support they provide.6Senior president of tribunals’ annual report 2020, page 8.
She stresses her role in new developments, one of which was the Property Chamber Deployment Project
. A working group on property disputes was established by the Civil Justice Council in 2015 to consider whether access to justice in property disputes could be improved by the deployment of judges to sit concurrently in courts and tribunals. This would mean a litigant would not have to go to two courts because their case straddled the jurisdiction of the First-tier Tribunal and the county court; instead, the judge would sit in both jurisdictions, cutting down time and expense. Thus, one case previously to be heard in two places could now be dealt with in one forum. Following a pilot, Siobhan published a proposal and recommendations to amend the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 and the Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (Property Chamber) Rules 2013 SI No 1169 to reflect this.7Report on Property Chamber Deployment Project for Civil Justice Council meeting 26th October 2018, October 2018.
Siobhan makes no secret of her wish for a property portal: one place for all applications, which could then be triaged. A case could be directed to a judge or the appropriate ombudsman, or to mediation. She believes this would be good for applicants, good for HMCTS and good for the MoJ.
Siobhan is undaunted. There are many difficult tasks ahead for HMCTS, but it is clear from her huge enthusiasm about the work of the tribunal that she relishes a challenge. She makes no apology for seeking an expansion of the tribunal’s jurisdiction. She says: ‘Good housing underpins security and health for the whole of our society. It is vitally important that accessible, expert and appropriate dispute resolution is provided for all. The issue is not whether this should be in a court or in a tribunal. We need a system where early triage determines how a case will be dealt with and if formal adjudication becomes necessary that it is delivered with a firm focus on the user and the user’s needs.’
Siobhan’s four children are all grown up. William, John, Evie and Guy Seaward have interesting careers and interests but none of them has any intention of ever taking up law! Her partner, Martin Seaward, represents the Fire Brigades Union at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry (at which her former pupil master, Michael Mansfield QC, is representing some of the survivors and relatives).