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Tag Archive for Legal Aid

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.

cambridge house welfare benefits, cambridge house law centre, cambridge house legal advice

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 One of our solicitors represented her, arguing that her benefits had been wrongly withdrawn and that she remained entitled to support as a family member of a person with a right to reside in the UK (her husband, from whom she had separated).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.’

How the Legal System is Failing Courteney – Safer Renting Blog

Safer Renting works with vulnerable tenants and victims of criminal landlords to help protect their rights and get justice. The Safer Renting blog from our Project Lead Roz Spencer tells the stories of the people we work with. You can learn about the project here.

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.

Government plan to close Lambeth County Court will leave court users struggling to get justice

  • Government proposal to close Lambeth County Court will make it harder for those facing eviction to mount an effective legal challenge.
  • Proposal to close courts is based on ‘wildly optimistic’ estimates of journey times for court users.

 

People battling eviction proceedings in South London will face greater hurdles to keeping their homes if government plans to close down courts and tribunals in London go ahead.

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

Lambeth County Court, London

Lambeth County Court, one of the country’s  busiest courts when it comes to housing possession cases  and evictions, is among 10 courts and tribunals in London slated for closure under the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ‘Estate Reform Programme’.

Under the MoJ’s proposal Lambeth County Court’s workload will be moved to Wandsworth County Court, leaving those who would attend proceedings at Lambeth facing longer journey times, and putting a greater strain on resources at Wandsworth. The proposal also fails to take into account the true length of time it would take those using Lambeth County Court to attend Wandsworth.

Stuart Hearne, the manager of the Cambridge House Law Centre in Camberwell, said:  “Taking someone’s home away from them is a serious legal sanction and anyone facing eviction deserves to be able to put their case forward and have a fair hearing.

“The current system is already under strain and closing Lambeth County Court will seriously affect access to justice for people in the local area. It will mean anyone who has to go to court to challenge an eviction order will have to travel further and face a court that is even more overloaded.

“The government’s proposal seems to suggest that closing Lambeth will only marginally affect court users, but in fact it will increase journey times quite considerably and make it more difficult for people to attend hearings that can dramatically affect their lives. The government’s estimates of how long it would take court users to attend Wandsworth County Court instead of Lambeth seem to me to be wildly optimistic.”

The government says court users will be only marginally affected by its proposed closures because London’s public transport system makes it relatively easy for people get to a different court.

But data compiled by Cambridge House – using the postcodes of court users, rather than the generalised data used by the MoJ – shows this to be an inaccurate assessment. For example:

  • A journey from SE1 5RB in Bermondsey that currently takes 44 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 36 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court;
  • A journey from SE15 6AX in Peckham that currently takes 39 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 45 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court;
  • A journey from SE16 2XH in Rotherhithe that currently takes 53 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 49 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court;
  • A journey from SE21 8HS that currently takes 40 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 15 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court.

The concern is that the closure of Lambeth County Court will lead to an increase in evictions and homelessness putting an even greater strain on already stretched resources.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

Cambridge House Law Centre

Cambridge House is a south London charity based in the heart of the borough of Southwark. Since 1889, Cambridge House has stood up for those who lack the ability and capacity to protect their own rights. By offering free expert legal advice and professional advocacy services we ‘give voice’ to the most vulnerable people in our society, increase access to justice for those without the means to pay, promote social inclusion, tackle inequality and address gaps in statutory provision.

The MoJ’s proposal

The MoJ’s proposal documents for its Estate Reform Programme can be found here.

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