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How the Legal System is Failing Courteney – Safer Renting Blog

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.

How Good are Licensing Schemes at Stopping Rogue Landlords? – Safer Renting Blog

Safer Renting works to tackle criminal landlords and support their victims across London. The Project Director Roz Spencer, as seen on Channel 5’s Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords, has over 30 years’ experience working with private sector and social housing in London. This blog details her experiences tackling criminal landlords and working with some of the most vulnerable tenants in London.

nightmare tenants slum landlords, channel 5, roz spencer, safer renting, safer renting blog, contact, licensing, public sector, housing enforcement, It is still early days for Safer Renting, but it is hard not to notice some patterns emerging in the casework we’re taking on. Both of the boroughs where we have started working have embraced discretionary licensing for landlords as a way of driving up standards in the private rented sector. One of the two has whole borough licensing – so any and all rented property must be licensed, regardless of size or degrees of self-containment.

One of the trends we’ve noticed is so apparent it hardly needs stating at all: levels of eviction and attempted eviction by private landlords– usually through no fault of the tenant – are very high. The driver for many evictions is this: rents are rising faster than wages in these London boroughs, so it pays the landlord to trade a tenant who can only barely afford the rent for a new tenant who can afford a higher rent.

I used to be one of many sceptics about the value of licensing schemes – and I still believe that we need more powers and more resources to tackle the worst of the private rented sector abuses.  On the other hand, by working hand-in-hand with the licensing teams, we are led to the poorest quality properties; ones that should be licensed, but aren’t.

There are other benefits to the licensing scheme aside from identifying the worst perpetrators. .One of the keys to our success has been that landlords who fail to licence a property that should be licensable are not legally able to use ‘no fault’ (Section 21) evictions. These are currently the most prevalent forms of private sector eviction and have emerged as the leading cause of homelessness in the UK. Indeed, reviewing our casework statistics, I saw that we have been able to help the tenant to sustain the tenancy in 92% of cases where the landlord had tried to evict the tenant.

Despite these welcome successes, it’s only growing more obvious that there are so many things that could and should be done to protect tenants in the private rented sector; for example, many tenants don’t even enjoy this protection from eviction because the landlord has used loopholes to avoid granting any tenancy at all in return for cash-in-hand rent; but until there is a radical change in powers and resources, don’t underestimate how much licensing can do to protect people’s homes.

Buying a House Takes More Than Hard Work and Willpower – Contrary to Government Belief

Alice Belotti speaking at Cambridge House's Housing Conference, May 2016

Alice Belotti speaking at Cambridge House’s ‘Can We Afford To Lose Council Housing?’ conference in May 2016

Home repossession, evictions, and homelessness are on the rise. At the same time, the lack of decent, affordable, and stable accommodation causes huge strains in people’s lives. But what will the government’s ‘landmark’ Housing and Planning Act 2016 do to tackle these problems?

The housing crisis we are experiencing is made up of three interlinked components: a lack of supply where there is more demand; soaring rents and housing prices; and unaffordable home prices for lower-income households, leading to a rapid expansion in private renting. These components play out differently in various local markets, with huge regional variations. But the depth of the current crisis is experienced by people living in London and the South East.

Private renting and affordability

Through the Act, the government is committed to exposing rogue landlords; but this is not enough, as they are a small part of the problem. What really plagues the housing sector are high rents and a lack of security. Private renting has grown rapidly over the last 15 years. More and more people – especially families with children – are living in private rented accommodation.

Yet private rents have been rising, especially in London and the South East, where rents amount for no less than 50 per cent of median gross monthly salary. Young couples are finding it a struggle to have kids while renting; many young people also have no option but to share a house with others (up by 70 per cent since 2011) or live with their parents. Their savings towards a step up on the property ladder are eaten by the extortionate rents set by a self-regulating market.

https://pixabay.com/en/london-building-panorama-947381/

Image Credit: Pixabay

Homeownership and affordability

And although the government may hope to help first-time buyers through Starter Homes, the scheme misses those on average income and below. The government’s new flagship policy will offer a 20 per cent discount to first-time buyers who are between the age of 23-40; but a 20 per cent discount will still be out of reach for those in need of an affordable home, given that Starter Homes could cost up to £450,000 in London, and £250,000 in the rest of the country. To discourage buy-to-lets and property speculation, Starter Home buyers will also be forced to repay a percentage of the discount if their home is sold or let within 20 years of the purchase. (However, if property prices continue to grow at today’s pace, it will not take much to pay back the discount early.)

Social housing provision

There was a time, only fifty years ago, when housing was seen as a basic right, and social housing was growing fast. Under both Labour and Conservative governments, the race was to build council homes. Five decades later, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 may be signaling the end of social housing as we know it, according to Lord Kerslake, former Head of the Civil Service. Social rented housing will be lost as a result of policies such as the new Right to Buy and the forced sale of councils’ ‘higher’ value voids. Estate demolition and rebuilding is also displacing large communities and gradually eroding the social housing stock.

In theory, housing associations and local authorities should build one-to-one (or two-to-one) replacement homes for any home lost through the above policies. But the new homes will not have to be like-for-like, and it is not clear where the money for local authorities will come from. The result will be a net loss of social housing. The 1 per cent rent reduction also means that the much-needed new social rented housing will not materialise.

And in light of new unexpected budget pressures, the majority of social landlords are drastically scaling back on development programmes, while others are deciding to build less social housing, and instead build more private homes for sale. Local authorities will have the duty to provide at least 20 per cent Starter Homes in any new development, which will count as affordable housing for planning purposes. A recent survey by Inside Housing of 97 English councils reveals that a third of them will see their affordable housing requirements completely taken by Starter Homes, not social renting.

The Chartered Institute of Housing also estimate that around 350,000 social rented homes be lost by 2020 through affordable rents and Right to Buy sales, high value sales, and demolitions of former council estates, whilst only 3,500 new homes will be built. Meanwhile, the housing benefit bill has risen from £11bn in 2000-01 to £25bn in 2015-16 to subsidise private landlords, rather than to support social landlords.

What’s the solution?

The government’s new housing agenda is all about home-ownership and incredibly penalising towards social housing and its tenants. The government’s policy, however, is based on the wrong assumption that home-ownership is possible for everyone through hard work and willpower. What it can be said it ignores is the fact that social housing provides a decent and affordable option for people who need it. So, if anything, we need to build more social housing, devise better and easier ways for people to access affordable housing, and revitalise low-demand areas to bring empty homes back into use.

https://pixabay.com/en/london-flats-urban-architecture-448552/

Image credit: Pixabay

In the absence of government funding, more responsibility rests on local authorities and housing associations to sustain social housing. Local authorities have the ability to borrow towards their assets and build more homes. There are interesting models of cross-subsidy of social rented housing which are being tested out by housing associations that want to remain a viable business while enhancing their social commitment. At the same time, devolution in the North could re-balance regional differences and uncover creative, innovative ways to improve the economic and housing fortunes of older industrial cities and regions.


Alice Belotti, research assistant at LSE’s Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economics and Related Disciplines (STICERD) and an expert on estate regeneration, recently took part in our Housing Crisis Conference. The Conference brought together council tenants, politicians and housing and legal experts to discuss the impact of the housing crisis and possible solutions. Find below Alice’s informative article on the Housing and Planning Act.

Article originally posted on the LSE BLOG – http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/homeownership-in-housing-and-planning-act/

7 Things You Need To Know About The Housing & Planning Bill

everything wrong with the housing and planning bill, Jamie Burton, housing and planning bill, Doughty Street Chambers, sink estate strategy, David Cameron, Conservatives, housing crisis, conference, podcast, talk, what's wrong with the housing and planning bill, the housing and planning bill explained

Jamie Burton explains why the Housing and Planning Bill may make the housing crisis worse rather than better.

The CHat is back! This week’s subject: everything you need to know about the Housing and Planning Bill

Welcome back to The CHat, London’s premier social justice podcast, broadcasting straight from Cambridge House.

In April, we hosted an urgent conference on the housing crisis in London, addressing the growing threats to council housing and council tenants in the city and asking a critical question: Can we afford to lose council housing? Discussion ranged from alternatives to current approaches to estate regeneration (often involving demolition) to how the housing crisis in London is disastrous for many but, from some perspectives, a boom for certain groups.

This first episode brings you a fantastic talk by Jamie Burton, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and expert in judicial review and human rights, leading a smart, damning, and (often) amusing analysis of the Government’s proposals to tackle the housing crisis. Going through each of the key elements of the Housing and Planning Bill in detail, the talk is both a great primer on an important piece of legislation and an intelligent critique of a policy move that could spell the end of social housing in the UK as we know it. Jamie also touches on David Cameron’s “sink estate” regeneration strategy. The talk is followed by a brief Q&A from our audience.

The episode is available on this page, on i-Tunes, and on YouTube

Learn more about the conference here.

Doughty Street Chambers

What’s a Mayor to do about the housing crisis?

Welcome to The CH@T ~ Broadcasting straight from Cambridge House, we’re asking: what’s going on with housing in London? How can a new Mayor tackle the housing crisis?

Tackling some of the toughest issues facing society today, The CH@T brings you insights and stories straight from the frontline of social action in the UK. From our base in Camberwell, we’re taking the big questions to the grassroots to get to the bottom of the biggest social issues facing London and the UK today.

Photo Credit: Dave Kleinschmidt via Flickr

The CH@T premieres with a series of episodes focusing the housing crisis in London, chatting with experts in housing, gentrification, and the legal system to get to the bottom of one of the biggest issues on the agenda.

In our premiere, we’re busting a few big myths about the housing crisis, hearing about who’s being hit hardest, and – most importantly –  finding out what Londoners can do in the coming mayoral elections to help protect Londoners from losing their homes.

Listen in to our chat with Research and Knowledge Exchange Coordinator, Dr Hannah White, about a research project she recently completed into housing in South London. In late 2015, Dr White explored the reality of the housing crisis for Londoners by shadowing the Lambeth County Court Duty Scheme, which provides free legal advice for people with issues with their housing, speaking with people facing eviction from their homes to hear their stories, find out why people are facing such challenges, and to inform recommendations for policymakers to help people hold on to their homes.

housing crisis, mayoral election, podcast,

Photo Credit: Garry Knight via Flickr

If you enjoy it, drop us a comment or, even better, give us a review on iTunes – get in there quick and get a shout-out on the next episode of The CH@T.

You can support Cambridge House’s work tackling poverty and social injustice by heading to our JustGiving page.

  • To read Dr White’s research in full, click here
  • To learn more about our Research and Knowledge Exchange Activities, click here
  • To learn more about our Law Centre and what we do to help people protect their homes, click here

London’s Dispossessed: Local authority possession orders and homelessness in South London

Cambridge House receives funding from Leicester University to carry out research on housing in South London

The London housing crisis shows no sign of abating. Average property prices have reached nearly half a million while increasing numbers of people are being priced out of the rental market. At the same time social housing is in decline, and Government ‘reforms’ intended to cut the welfare bill such as the bedroom tax, benefits cap and recent withdrawal of tax credits have hit the poorest hardest. This has seen rising homelessness, displacement and overcrowding with central London becoming, according to Matthew Taylor in last weekend’s Observer, a no-go zone for below average income households.

Cambridge House image

Aylesbury Estate, London Borough of Southwark

Southwark where Cambridge House is based, is also undergoing rapid transformation as a result of Government policy and foreign investment. For the moment it remains polarised with areas of extreme wealth and poverty. The most deprived wards (Camberwell, Faraday, Peckham and Livesey) sit sandwiched between the recently regenerated south bank of the Thames (City Hall) and the leafy suburbs to the South. This however is set to change. Southwark Council one of the largest social landlords in the UK has been selling off run-down accommodation it can no longer afford to maintain. This has seen developers moving in to take advantage of the investment opportunities presented by estates such as the Heygate and Aylesbury situated less than a mile away from the river.

There is an emergent academic literature examining how the ‘new’ urban renewal is encouraging the gentrification of previously devalued council estates and its impact (Hyra 2008; Watt 2009; Lees 2014). However, less is known about who is at threat from eviction or homelessness or the effects on the individual. Further, there has been little investigation into how service providers should respond in order to best support vulnerable residents and adapt services to the challenges and requirements of living (or attempting to stay) in the capital.

Cambridge House is pleased to announce that it has recently received funding from the University of Leicester to help plug this gap. Working with Professor Loretta Lees an urban geographer who specialises in gentrification and urban regeneration and supported by Cambridge House Law Centre, the research will provide in depth insight into the experiences and circumstances of those facing the threat of eviction or who are already homeless in South London.

The research objectives are as follows:

  • To establish who is vulnerable from eviction and/or homelessness and why
  • To examine the personal impact of possession orders and homelessness on the individual
  • To determine in what ways service providers can better support those at threat from, or who are already, homeless

If you wish to find out more about the research or would like to be involved please contact  hwhite@ch1889.org

Can the Supreme Court stop austerity hitting the vulnerable hardest?

Credit to Rob Young. Used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Supreme Court

Last month the Supreme Court delivered a land mark ruling in homelessness law. The case of Mr Kanu, demonstrates how far some cash strapped Council’s had squeezed the definition of vulnerability in order to avoid treating those with a physical disability or mental health issues as having priority need. With a further 12 billion in benefit cuts on the horizon, widening inequality and rising homelessness we ask: can we rely on the law to protect our most vulnerable?

Under the Cameron administration, homelessness has now reached crisis point. Crisis and Shelter, report that rough sleeping has increased by 37% over the last three years, and last year more than 130,000 people approached their local authority as homeless (equivalent to the population of Cambridge).

Under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities have a duty to ensure accommodation for people who are homeless and in ‘priority need’. However housing shortages and spending restrictions have meant that the definition of ‘priority need’ had become the critical factor in determining who is entitled.

From 1998 a precedent referred to as the ‘Pereira Test’ had been used to assess an individual’s circumstances. Lady Brenda Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, summed this up: “We had reached the point where decision–makers were saying, of people who clearly had serious mental or physical disabilities, that ‘you are not vulnerable, because you are no more vulnerable than the usual run of street homeless people in our locality’”.

Last month’s judgement throws the state’s failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens into stark relief. In early 2011, an eviction notice was served to Mr Patrick Kanu (the successful appellant) and his family. Mr Kanu was already facing debilitating health issues, including mental health concerns. He initially sought support, but was rejected by the local authority. Later that year, Mr Kanu applied again when facing street homelessness. The Local Authority refused his application on the basis that he was not considered “in priority need”.

Mr Kanu approached Cambridge House, who provided Mr Kanu, with legal advice and representation.  By this time, Mr Kanu’s health was seriously deteriorating, suffering from chronic pain, hepatitis B, and levels of hypertension flagged by his GP as “dangerous”. Even more troublingly, Mr Kanu was experiencing severe mental health issues, including bouts of psychosis, attempted self-harm (often only prevented by Mr Kanu’s wife), and suicidal thoughts. Despite the Local Authority’s own Medical Assessment Service recommending his categorisation as in “priority need”, it decided that he was not sufficiently ‘vulnerable’ to be eligible for housing. The reason given was that Mr Kanu could cope with the effects of homelessness and in any event because he was married his wife could assist him.

The Housing Act 1996 states that Local Authorities have a duty to ensure that vulnerable homeless people who are not intentionally homeless are supported into housing. In Mr Kanu’s case this vulnerability was clearly significant. Yet, it was only after four years and against a backdrop of increasingly severe health issues that Mr Kanu’s won his appeal in the Supreme Court.  Sadly, the extent of Mr Kanu’s vulnerability became clear shortly after the Supreme Court judgement. Only 3 days later, Mr Kanu died aged 48 provoking the question: ‘How vulnerable is vulnerable enough?’

Under the new ruling, the Supreme Court has done away with the previous case law, including the Pereira Test, and specifically rejected some of the expressions used in homelessness cases such as “street homelessness” and “fend for oneself”. They have also abolished the use of statistics (a particularly blunt way of establishing ‘ordinary’ levels of vulnerability), and re-established the intended meaning of a “person who is vulnerable” under the Housing Act 1996. Critically, as Lady Hale commented, this means that vulnerability will now be established in comparison “with ordinary people generally”, not “ordinary homeless people”.

Despite the positive precedent established on May 13th, as local authorities brace themselves for the £12bn in welfare cuts stories like Mr Kanu’s are likely to become more rather than less common. The disturbing possibility is that, in the face of single-minded austerity, the law will not protect the most vulnerable. Either the government must accept the cost of caring or the stark reality of the cost of cutting – for our most vulnerable the threat of deprivation and destitution.

Supreme Court announces historic decision on priority need for vulnerable homeless

Landmark homelessness case to improve right to housing for people in priority need, successfully pursued by Cambridge House Law Centre

Homlessness, disability, supreme court, priority need, vulnerability, Credit to Franco Folini. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Street homeless: vulnerable?

For the first time since the homelessness provisions came into force in 1977 the meaning of ‘vulnerability’ has been considered by the highest court in the land. This is of critical important for homeless people, particularly those with disabilities who do not have children and other groups who are often not considered in “priority need”.

Increasingly vulnerable single homeless people have been refused housing and left to fend for themselves as cash strapped councils have turned away people with disabilities on the basis they are not a priority because they are able to cope or at least cope as well as an ‘ordinary homeless person’.

The Supreme Court was asked to decide how Local Authorities should approach the statutory test of vulnerability contained in the Housing Act 1996. Under the Act a homeless person without children is considered to be in priority need for accommodation if they are “vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or handicap or physical disability or other special reason” S189(1)(c) HA 1996. In a series of appeals brought by Southwark and Solihull Councils, the Court of Appeal had previously ruled that a person was deemed to be vulnerable and in priority need, only if they would suffer more than an “ordinary street homeless person”.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal of Mr Patrick Kanu against Southwark Council’s decision that he was not in priority need for housing finding that his suffering should not have been compared with a street homeless person, but rather an ordinary person who stood to lose his accommodation. The Court also rejected the submission that the Equality Act 2010 could never add anything in vulnerability cases and that instead each case should be received on an individual basis.

In response to today’s judgement Mr Stuart Hearne of Cambridge House Law Centre, and the case lawyer stated:

“This is a very welcome judgement. I would hope that it will also be welcomed by Local Authorities. It will make it much clearer who should be assisted. In the past Local Authorities were having to compare homeless applicants with other homeless people to consider who is more vulnerable – this was a very difficult decision and one that led to disputes and some very disabled people being refused accommodation. It is not in anyone’s interest, including that of Local Authorities, that people who have disabilities or mental health issues should not be housed or left street homeless.

Rough sleepers have a lower life expectancy than the general population and are more likely to have mental and physical health problems.

This decision should now mean that the vast majority of homeless people who have a physical disability or have mental ill health should be accepted as being in priority need for accommodation”.

Available for comment:

Stuart Hearne Cambridge House Law Centre Manager and Case Solicitor

shearne@ch1889.org

Karin Woodley Chief Executive of Cambridge House

Kwoodley@ch1889.org

Notes to editor

The Supreme Court, in three appeals heard together, Kanu v Southwark LBC, Hotak v Southwark LBC and Johnson v Solihull BC was asked to decide how Local Authorities should approach the statutory test of vulnerability contained in the Housing Act 1996.

Mr Patrick Kanu had physical problems: including hepatitis B and hypertension as well as psychotic symptoms and suicide ideation.  He was cared for by his wife but despite her care, stress was raising his hypertension to what doctors characterised as “quite dangerous levels”.   Southwark Council had accepted that Mr Patrick Kanu would be in priority need for accommodation if he was on his own but decided that as he had a wife then he was not in priority need.

Mr Sifatullah Hotak is an adult with significant learning difficulties, with measured IQ on one test of 47 and a history of self-harming and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  His brother, Ezatullah looked after him but was also homeless.  Southwark Council decided that as Mr Hotak had a brother to care for him he was not considered to be in priority need.

The Court has overturned previous case law and guidance and has now established that:

  1. An authority’s duty to the homeless under Part VII Housing Act 1996 is not to be influenced or affected by the resources available to the authority.
  2. The correct comparator when assessing whether someone is vulnerable for the reasons in s189 (1)(c ) is an ordinary person if made homeless.
  3. Support from a third party can be taken into account when assessing whether a person is vulnerable but that needs to be applied with “considerable circumspection” and that the fact of support in itself is not enough.
  4. In the case of an applicant who has or may have a disability then at each stage of the decision making process the decision maker must have due regard to the need to achieve the goals of the Equality Act 2010 which include the need to eliminate discrimination, advance the equality of opportunity between those that have a disability and those that do not and to take active steps to meet the needs of those with a disability. S149 (1) (a)- ( c) Equality Act 2010.
  5. That the consideration of the public sector equality duty must be exercised “in substance, with rigour and with an open mind”.

The full judgment can be downloaded from the Supreme Court website:

https://www.supremecourt.uk/news/latest-judgments.html

Mr Patrick Kanu was represented by Mr Stuart Hearne of Cambridge House Law Centre.  His barristers were Mr Zia Nabi of Doughty Street Chambers and Ms Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers.

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