I know today is Friday 13th, but the events of the day surpass anything you could call “simply bad luck”.
For hardened members of the legal profession, this story may come as no surprise. Courtenay – not her real name – is a refugee from Rwanda who has been in this country now for some 20 years. She is a Care worker on a zero hours contract, has just completed her Masters degree in Pharmacology (so things she hopes may be looking up on the employment front) and is a single mother of 3. Her middle child suffers severely with sickle cell anaemia, made worse by the poor condition of her private rented flat. The London Borough of Hounslow are prosecuting the landlord for failure to maintain the property in a safe condition. As a result of this intervention, the landlord is now seeking to evict Courtenay and her 3 children: a form of revenge for something Courtenay had no say in.
The possession proceedings the landlord is using are of questionable legality because he has not protected Courtenay’s rent deposit and failed to maintain the safety of gas appliances. Courtenay should be entitled to legal aid to defend the possession claim: the catch is that the court has not served a key document on Courtenay’s case – the landlord’s Particulars of Claim. Without this, she can’t apply for legal aid and no solicitor can prepare a proper defence.
Courtenay tried to speak to the Court office to find a way around this, but was unable to find anybody willing to discuss her situation. With the hearing scheduled for just 3 working days time, I drove Courtenay to Staines County Court hoping to get a copy of the Particulars of Claim. However the court office was shut. We then made a further 3 phone calls to HM Courts and Tribunals Service to try and find a solution. Eventually Courtenay was told she would have to write to the court, with no guarantee she would get a response in time. The alternative, to apply for an adjournment to the hearing, involved a £225 fee and no guarantee of a decision in time.
Recognising there was no hope of resolving this in time for the hearing, we tried to find out if a Duty Solicitor service was available to represent Courtenay to stand in place of full representation by a solicitor. This was also a dead-end.
Having exhausted our options for securing full legal representation, Safer Renting will attend court with Courtenay as a McKenzie friend (someone who helps a person represent themselves in court who is not a legal representative) or represent her if the judge on the day permits it.
I was struck by Courtenay’s grit and grace in the face of this hopeless farce. She talked to me during our car journey of the transformation that Rwanda has been through and just how determined the country’s leadership has been to reform the country. Our legal system must look to her as it does to me, like a badly moth-eaten jumper. As someone who has fought through genocide, studied to improve her skills, takes care of our elderly, all while bringing up a family single-handedly, she deserves so much better than this.