LAG Housing Conference 2021: Reflection from James Bowker

FEE EARNER: James Bowker
DATE: 18 June 2021
MATTER: /JB1/NON5/1021
These last two days I have had the privilege of 'attending', in a virtual sense, the Legal Action Group’s conference on housing law. I have also had the privilege of attending, in a physical sense, the Business Design Centre in Islington where I was injected with the good stuff. In my case Moderna.
Such is the miracle of 4G that I was in fact able to attend both simultaneously, the conference beaming clearly into my mobile phone. While I waited the obligatory 15 minutes to see if the vaccine sceptics had a point, I was able to view the first session of the afternoon involving the Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Lucy Powell MP. The Conservative Party may have piggybacked on the success of the vaccine roll-out, but the presence of a Labour MP speaking to the conference so shortly after coming into her post, was a welcome contribution.
Some of the topics raised by the honourable member would raise their ugly head again and again throughout the conference. Anyone who has any experience working in housing, or indeed anyone who has been paying attention in the last decade or so, will know that the cladding scandal, the crisis in social housing, the homelessness crisis, and the potential tsunami of human misfortune that may engulf the system as a direct or tangential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have coalesced to create a real emergency in housing. It was to the credit of the contributors, with a special reference to HHJ Jan Luba QC, that the presentations maintained a degree of levity and avoided the despair that might otherwise have overwhelmed proceedings.
Indeed, if there was an overall theme to the varied and informative workshops over the two days, it was that although the system is in fundamental need of reform, those who wish to help the most vulnerable can make a real difference when they think and work outside the box. There is little point in debating whether the system is adequate to deal with the social need; it is not. It is also necessary to acknowledge that housing lawyers cannot solve every problem, “The law is not a panacea”, hence the need to approach the issue holistically, with due regard to the action that can be taken outside the strict boundaries of housing law.
One of the strengths of the conference was the fusing of contributors who are involved in legal aid housing law and those who work for charities, print and broadcast media, members of the judiciary, and community action groups. The perspective brought by Abbie Kirkby and Ivy Manning from Friends, Families, and Travellers on the issues facing Gypsy/Roma/Traveller communities was complemented by the expertise brought by Marc Willers QC - author of Gypsy and Traveller Law - on the legal options that can help in the fight back against such prejudice.
Marc made the point that housing lawyers should consider how they can move outside of the box of housing law and familiarise themselves with the wider issues a client might face. This was a point reiterated on the second day of the conference by Professor Luke Clements. Although by this point, I had dosed myself up on paracetamol, my arm throbbing as the vaccine provoked a robust response from my antibodies, I was struck by the truth of the idea that clients present to law firms not with a single issue but with a multitude of problems, which need to be carefully sifted through by experienced lawyers. As a paralegal and trainee, I have taken the first call from clients myself, and the points raised by Professor Clements accorded with my own experience. See his book Clustered injustice and the level green and the fascinating discussion on the LAG Podcast for more.
One way of working outside the law is enlisting the help of journalists to generate publicity on a particular case or issue. The interrelationship between an individual, a family, or a community’s problems on a micro level frequently rub up against monolithic state bodies, and Fiona Bawdon, May Bulman, and Monidipa Fouzder told tales of successes and strategies that lawyers could consider when faced with a seemingly disinterested or hostile branch of government.
Perhaps it was the vaccine speaking, but I finished the session grateful that we have a legal profession staffed by people who just will not quit. If any government deigned to appreciate the selfless dedication of our stock of housing lawyers and match the talent available with adequate funding, there would be an opportunity to have a real positive effect on people’s lives.
Time engaged: units
Housing, Legal aid, Practice and procedure
Description: Copy of Copy of V2 FINAL HC brochure