Jobs and Homes by David Renton, A book review

by | Apr 23, 2021 | Safer Renting

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Back in the days of the Mortgage Rescue Scheme about 10 years ago, I found myself in court several times a month trying to get adjournments and suspensions while we cobbled together some form of acceptable financial deal that would keep the lenders happy and save the home.

I’m actually proud of the fact that in the hundreds of cases my co-TRO Steve (Now TRO at RBKC) dealt with, we only did about 5 mortgage rescue packages.

Despite government bigging it up, the fact was, as we found out time and time again, that the borrower didn’t need to hand over their home to a housing association. The lenders were no less a bunch of crooks than the kinds of landlords TROs normally deal with. They just hid behind a family friendly website. The judges spotted this as well and were usually more than willing to cut the borrower some much needed slack.

Using incessant and deliberately confusing letters from different departments, setting out questionable additional fees and containing empty threats and generally trying to wear the poor people out so they didn’t know whether they were coming or going and were ready to throw in the towel unless we got to them first.

It was challenging work, if you messed up, the person lost their home and so often the legal niceties and court procedures involved were so impenetrable and arcane that the borrower often didn’t have the first clue what was going on, at any stage.

I remember in one case, where myself and the lender’s lawyer were arguing all sort of legal daftness with each other, the judge suddenly put his hand up to silence us both and directly addressed the terrified homeowner sitting between us.

He said “You’re having a really difficult time here aren’t you madam?” and she burst into tears. The judge reminding myself and the bank’s lawyer that whilst we were jousting with civil procedure rules , this was all about a human being facing the very real prospect of having her home taken away.

Such displays of direct human compassion aren’t often in evidence in court proceedings and is certainly rarely the subject matter of law books but LAG, who have been cutting new ground in publishing more than just legal manuals recently, published “Jobs and Homes” by barrister and author David Renton.

David has been mapping out personal stories of real people in the courts during the pandemic, through both housing and employment law cases. Along the way making the very pertinent point that you cant separate the 2 areas of law, as well as exposing the chaos in the courts themselves that you wouldnt know about unless you had the misfortune to be involved in court proceedings.

One passage jumped straight out at me as something that sounds very familiar to myself and the Safer Renting caseworkers, the tale of Ashwin, who launched a damages claim against his landlord for unlawful eviction but whose solicitor failed to file a defence against the landlord’s counterclaim for £10,000 , citing scuff marks on a carpet, meaning Ashwin was £10k in the hole before his case even hit the courts.

“Our hearing was due to start at 10am. It couldn’t begin on time.  The defendant’s solicitor’s phone was not answering. Then the court was unwilling to add the claimant to the call.- Finally the hearing was ready to start. I asked the judge “Do you have the case papers?” He did not. I emailed the papers and the parties hung up while he read them. The defendant’s solicitor was missing when we tried again, while his answerphone was playing some sub-Dire Straits guitar solo. The usher asked “Do I have the district judge on the line?” No answer”.

The sorry tale carries on in a similar vein of disorganised nonsensical incompetence that I would imagine many a court user could match, anecdote for anecdote.

Ashwin was finally told that there would be a hearing about the £10,000 debt but probably not for at least a year while the debt hung over his head.

Jobs and Homes contains a year’s worth of such daily experiences, that aren’t outraged ‘Down with this sort of thing’ articles in the tabloids ,or Rishi Sunak’s dull proclamations on the state of the economy, or Kier Starmer’s powder-puff counter attacks.

Like an A&E nurse, David Renton’s tales merely report on the sober, daily grind of awfulness that so many have been going through over the past year, giving the unemployed and the soon to be homeless a name and a presence, as opposed to being a statistic on BBC Breakfast News, sandwiched between football scores and how lovely the tulips are looking this year.

Beneath all the soul sapping Union Jack, cod-world war 2 bullshit of contemporary times are real people, trying to obtain justice and redress through a court system that is listing dangerously to starboard, with huge backlogs of every kind of case and remote hearings that sometimes work but often don’t.

Aa David points out of government’s failure to address mandatory grounds for possession “Our housing law maximises landlord’s powers to evict and deprives judges of finding a balanced way through”. Here, here. There have been numerous calls to make Ground 8 (2 months rent arrears) a discretionary ground rather than a mandatory one but such calls have fallen on perhaps not so much deaf ears, so much as ears unwilling to hear.

Most chillingly and I’m amazed David Renton manages to control his anger, is the chapter in which he sets out the findings of the Briggs report and the suggested move to swapping lawyers for litigants in person guided by a computer algorithm, through which people can create their own litigation bundles and present their case, allowing the government to continue the mass sell-off of court buildings for developers to turn into quirky boutique hotels, with probably a ground floor cocktail bar jokingly called “The Robing Room”.

“To understand the rationale for online courts, we need to grasp the unspoken logic on which they are based; because so many courts have closed and so many already distanced from justice, the solution is to distance them further”.

An icy vision of the future for ordinary people but which seems in keeping with the present times, where private landlords are monetising homelessness and our government monetises the pandemic to swell the bank accounts of their mates and party donors

Jobs and Homes is a good read, a welcome read but not an easy read. You have to keep putting your coffee mug down so you can shake your fist.

I don’t imagine it will hit the best sellers list because of the subject matter but if someone had the foresight to turn into a film, as has occurred recently with “Nomadland”, about the lives of disenfranchised older people in the USA forced onto the road, it might just catch the general public’s eye as a timely signifier of the quiet collapse of our legal system.

 by Ben Reeve Lewis

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About Cambridge House Safer Renting

The Cambridge House Safer Renting team present the ‘go-to’ blog on the world of the Shadow Private Rented Sector.

We monitor the world of rogue landlord and agent activity, publicise developments, circulate innovative ideas, keep readers abreast of changes in laws and regulations, raising awareness of criminal trends and scams, celebrate successful actions and interview people working in the field, connecting up anyone involved, from tenants and their advisers, to enforcement officers, lawyers and journalists.

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