Over the past few weeks we have said goodbye to 2 of our experienced caseworkers. One went back to Uni to do a Masters, while the other went off to become a researcher for an MP.
We replaced them with three new trainee TROs to meet our growing contract partners. They have been in place for a few weeks now and I thought it would be a good time to gather their initial thoughts on how landlord and tenant law works for people, coming at it as they are, with fresh eyes and before they get as jaded as me.
I’m surprised to see how quickly they are picking up the problems in practice that I just take for granted these days.
One trainee S, said how she was amazed at how many laws there are that govern renting, whilst being simultaneously amazed at how little landlords or tenants know about them.
Although she also notes that the law often simply doesn’t work for renters, a thought echoed by P, who commented “I had thought that my expectations for avenues for Tenants to get help and/or access to justice were low, but they did manage to get lower pretty quickly.”
Our other newbie, H who studied law at Uni, expressed frustration at the bureaucracy involved and the length of time it takes to resolve problems, citing a case she has where a woman has been living without hot water for 2 weeks, which is how long it has taken H to go all around the houses, navigating the various bureaucratic systems just to get someone to agree to pay the £200 it will require to fix the problem that the landlord refuses to fix but only to find at the moment that whilst we finally have a green light to go, we dont have an office credit card to purchase the part or pay for the fitting. We have rung around a couple of tradespeople who are either reluctant to invoice us and/or they are just too busy.
Of course legal action could be taken against the landlord but that isn’t going to get her hot water back right now, where she needs it. The legal machinery is there but it’s not geared to solve an immediate problem, which is actually what is needed.
S, P and H all acknowledged that they notice how worn down people get living under rogue and criminal landlords, as a significant factor in how far they can go to assist them.
The prevailing mood being that they really just want it all to end and are often reluctant to cooperate with legal avenues of redress, partly because they fear reprisals if action is taken against the landlord or agent, while they are still in the property or again, just because they don’t have the heart or mental stamina to fight for their rights.
Whilst some are certainly outraged enough to want to see justice done, many don’t. The most commonly expressed desire is not prosecution or damages but simply to get enough money to enable them to live somewhere else and forget about it.
Case example: A, has a case where a landlord has fitted CCTV cameras in the HMO to watch his tenants. We have told him he may be interfering with quiet enjoyment of the occupants and certainly breaking ICO regs on data control. His response is that the cameras don’t work. In order to remedy the problem, perhaps through an injunction, we have to take onboard what evidence we might have to counter that argument and persuade the court he is lying.
We had a chat this morning about the tenants covering the cameras and then see if he responds, then we might have evidence that the cameras are working if he kicks off about it. Then deciding whether to apply for an injunction, bearing in mind the occupants aren’t eligible for legal aid, or reporting the landlord to the ICO.
Can you see the faff involved just so the tenants can live without being filmed? If they go the obvious route and rip the cameras down the landlord will no doubt call police and report criminal damage and the police will likely take his side.
A, who has been doing the job for about 10 months now, talks of the circumstances of another of her clients, with her situation being so bad that 2 separate solicitors have become angry on her behalf and have come onboard with different aspects, working under a Conditional Fee Arrangement and yet still A has to keep the renter’s resolve going to stay with the fight for justice.
She has no faith that the system is going to deliver and is alienated by the complex process that she has to participate in. She just wants her problems to go away and live in peace.
During our team chat this morning, S made a really telling point that everyone nodded in agreement with, that whilst the laws are there to protect tenants and seek redress, the person has to be time rich in order to embark on the course of action and in some cases financially solvent, which few people living in the Shadow Private Rented Sector are, that’s why they live there, because they don’t have the financial clout to lift themselves out.
Also worth bearing in mind that in London at least, many of the occupants living under the worst landlords and agents in the worst conditions, often have English as a second language and fairly frequently, no spoken English at all, so really struggle to understand the complex processes they would be expected to become involved with.
P commented about his surprise at what an uphill battle it is dealing with the police in incidents as well as the nagging suspicion he is developing along with the others, that the law, for all the reasons mentioned above, so often is not really much help. He said “ It’s definitely still difficult to get my head around the objectively awful situations that Tenants are in where you have to tell them there’s nothing they can do, especially those circumstances where the only avenue is paying for a solicitor for a claim where there is no guarantee of success.”
Lack of available legal aid solicitors is also a big discovery. Whilst they all knew it was bad, they didn’t realise it was as bad as it really is.
The consensus, whenever I talk about these matters to our crew is that they got into the work to fight for tenants rights and have no problems doing so with landlords and agents as expected but find it surprising that they are often also fighting the police, homelessness units, Orwellian bureaucracy and as mentioned above, the often mind-numbing effects of the legal hoops to be jumped through at various stages, the inability to reassure renters in difficulty, with any guarantee of a result, that’s if you can even find someone to represent in the first place.
On this last point P said “I think the biggest learning curve was just learning to deal with the responsibility for our clients, which is definitely still something I’m getting to grips with. That alongside learning to say what you can and can’t do for them with any degree of confidence.”
None of this dents the resolve of our excellent trainee TROs and I suppose having a naïve faith in legal processes is a necessary luxury that you need to drop pretty quickly in order to be able to do the work but its interesting that one of the first things you learn getting into tenant advocacy work is that despite the huge raft of legislation that relates to the private renting of property, so much if it is academic when dealing with a human being just wanting to live their life quietly and peacefully.
Whilst it must feel great to cross the finishing line at a Marathon, you have to do 26 miles of life-sapping slog first, with no guarantee that you will even cross the line and bearing in mind that you didnt even want to start the race in the first place, you just did it because you wanted to be left alone.
By Ben Reeve Lewis