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How did the Government wrongly cancel an epileptic woman’s benefits three times, nearly making her homeless?

The government needs to look seriously at restoring legal aid for early intervention welfare benefits work or people like Mrs J will end up losing their homes.

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Cambridge House solicitor Serdar Celebi took on Mrs J’s case and helped clear her rent arrears and restore her benefit.

Mrs J is a council tenant who suffers from epilepsy and a blood clot on the brain which causes her to have seizures. Errors in her Housing Benefit (which continued once she transferred to Universal Credit) resulted in her getting behind on rent. The Department for Work and Pensions then (wrongly) cancelled her benefits on the grounds that as she wasn’t entitled to them as a Brazilian national. With her benefits cancelled, her local authority landlord moved to evict her.

On the morning of her eviction hearing, Mrs J suffered multiple seizures, preventing her from getting to court. The hearing went on without her and the judge granted the possession order to the local authority, meaning they could evict her.

Faced with losing her home, Mrs J sought support from Cambridge House’s Law Centre. One of our solicitors represented her, arguing that her benefits had been wrongly withdrawn and that she remained entitled to support as a family member of a person with a right to reside in the UK (her husband, from whom she had separated). Our solicitor also highlighted that the local authority had neglected repairs to her home and that she had a potential claim for compensation against them.

This was a complete success. The local authority agreed to withdraw the possession order, pay compensation for the repair problems, and cover her legal costs. At the same time, Mrs J’s Housing Benefit claim was backdated and she won her Universal Credit appeal, clearing her rent arrears.

Sadly, this wasn’t the end of Mrs J’s ordeal. Despite winning her appeal at a tribunal hearing, the DWP again suspended her Universal Credit on faulty grounds. Cambridge House had to send a letter threatening Judicial Review proceedings before they would concede. However, as soon as her benefits re-commenced, the DWP withdrew them again, once more on faulty grounds. Though this time, the DWP conceded without the need for a hearing, Mrs J still needed solicitor support to put things right.

In the end, Mrs J’s benefits were cancelled 3 times in a row, each time in error. This, combined with rent arrears that were also not her fault, nearly resulted in her homelessness. The Cambridge House Law Centre solicitor who took Mrs J’s case, Serdar Celebi, explains what this means:

‘I think the main lesson from this case is that social security law is very complex and without representation Mrs J may have now been homeless due to rent arrears which had accrued due to no fault of her own. She had legal aid for the possession claim and proposed judicial review but the two tribunal appeals were done under other funding as legal aid was removed for such cases in 2013.

‘The government needs to look again urgently at restoring legal aid for early intervention work in relation to benefits and for tribunal cases. If Mrs J had not been able to find a law centre with alternative funding she may have had to deal with the complex tribunal proceedings herself. Mrs J showed tremendous resolve and patience despite the stress she was under.’

Reimagining Rent: Safer Renting Partners with the Young Foundation

We’re delighted to announce our partnership with the Young Foundation as they launch the Reimagining Rent programme, working with innovative campaigns that are tackling the issues created by the private renting crisis. One of these innovations is the approach of our very own Safer Renting programme, which works to create a better private rented sector for tenants and drive slum landlords out of business by designing and supporting pathways out of slum rentals, providing advocacy in action, and influencing social policy.

Safer Renting works outside of the areas covered by mainstream housing organisations, being one of the first programmes to address the emerging areas of housing stress in outer London, where people’s need for housing is being exploited both legally and illegally. Driven by the expertise of our team, Safer Renting’s innovative approach is led by nationally-regarded experts in private housing policy and practice who bring decades of local authority and advice sector experience. We engage the people least likely to be reached by generic housing advice services – people with complex barriers to help, who have issues accessing legal-aided support and won’t claim benefits. Our targeted approach gathers intelligence on where London’s most vulnerable tenants live, and enables us to reach those who are least likely to know their rights or access advice. A new, effective model that will be expanding nationally soon, Safer Renting fits perfectly with the innovative campaigns that are launching Reimagining Rent.

Roz Spencer, Safer Renting’s Project Director, said:

“Working on a start-up project in a very challenging area can often feel a lonely place. It’s also vital to us to know we’re not only helping people being exploited by slum landlords, but that we are actually contributing in the long term to solving the root problems. The Young Foundation team bring buckets of enthusiasm as well as depth and breadth of knowledge and wisdom. They are the difference that makes the difference.”

Funded by the Nationwide Foundation, Reimagining Rent is a unique housing innovation problem that the private rented sector desperately needs. Nearly a third of rented homes fail to meet basic decency standards; eviction from private tenancy accounts for 78% of the rise in homelessness since 2011 and is now the single biggest cause of homelessness; and the number of children in poverty in private rented accommodation has tripled in the last decade, overtaking social housing as the tenure where children are most likely to grow up in poverty. Safer Renting and Reimagining Rent is utilising the Young Foundation’s innovation development expertise and Cambridge House’s housing experience to make renting fairer, kinder and safer. Working to strengthen Safer Renting’s business model, impact and potential to scale, we’re excited to see where our partnership with Reimagining Rent takes us.

The closure of Lambeth County Court has become a dangerous farce

Credit to secretlondon123. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Credit to secretlondon123.

Lambeth County Court,  one of the busiest housing court in the country, was due to close last week as part of the Ministry of Justice’s court closure programme. Late last Friday, our solicitors were informed that the Court was staying open for at least another month; the court staff had only found out that morning. The chaos around the Court is putting families at risk of homelessness and denying them access to justice.

When the plan to close Lambeth County Court was first announced, Cambridge House along with Southwark and Lambeth Law Centres advocated against the decision to close the court, highlighting the substantial barriers to justice that closing the court would create for poorer clients across South London. Under the proposed plans, court users will be expected to travel much further to attend and at considerable cost; for example, a person in South Norwood may have to travel to Old Street, a £10 return. A single person’s basic Universal Credit allowance is £79 per week; attending a hearing then could consume more than 10% of their weekly budget. The decision appears to be administratively driven and with little thought given to users of the court, especially those vulnerable clients most in need of accessible justice.

With this latest twist, the closure of the court has descended from a short sighted cost-cutting exercise to dangerous farce. We have seen many different letters relating to court hearings, all citing different venues. These cases are not trivial – vulnerable people with low incomes attending court to try and keep a roof over the heads, sometimes against unscrupulous or negligent landlords. Thanks to this confusion, there can be no doubt that there will be more evictions and more people will become homeless. People will attend the wrong court, arrive late or not attend at all, thanks to the cost, because they can’t get time off work, or simply because they’ve given up hope. Some will make deals with their landlords to avoid court, which will doubtless to lead to eviction/homelessness in the end.

It is vital that people seek legal advice as soon as they receive any court notification, as Legal Aid is still available for housing possession cases, and that they are able to attend court. We reiterate our response to the closure plans and urge the Ministry of Justice to reconsider the decision to close Lambeth County Court.