by | Mar 6, 2021 | Safer Renting

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Back in the 1990s the county court duty desk was in it’s wild west days.

I was Lewisham council’s TRO back then and an early version of the duty scheme was operating in Bromley county court, run by the local CAB, where Phil, the sole beleaguered adviser split his time between legal work and being a fairly in-demand TV actor.

Undefended tenants would arrive in a state of high anxiety, terrified of losing their homes, only to face the surreal discovery that they were about to be represented by a regular face from Coronation Street, perhaps in expectation that the judge himself might be Ken Barlow.

Eager to learn how to defend people’s homes I offered my services and for well over a year Lewisham council allowed me to do every other Tuesday from 10am – 1pm, where commonly you would deal with between 10 and 15 possession claims. Talk about baptism of fire.

The deal would be that you had only 5 or 10 minutes with someone to gather information, work out a plan and go for it, so you had to figure it out as quickly before saving the home. You learnt to make very quick assessments and focus like a heat seeking missile on all the regular places where claimants make mistakes on the paperwork, that could stop the claim in it’s tracks.

Last week saw the publication of a book that would have made my life so much easier back then, Housing Possession Duty Desk by two of the most experienced and well-known duty solicitors in the game Sue James and Simon Mullings.

Why would LAG publish a book of this kind when they also publish the mammoth tome Defending Possession Proceedings, covering similar ground? Well DPP is a great book in it’s own right. I’ve got a copy and use it frequently when I’m researching a point of law, feet up, with a mug of coffee but there’s the rub. Housing Possession Duty Desk is written from the perspective of a duty adviser who doesn’t have time for dunking biscuits and might only have a few minutes with a client before having to get into the court room and strut their funky stuff, while there are 2 or 3 other stressed out people waiting in the queue.

It’s high pressure work when hanging over your head all the time is that nagging thought that if you mess it up, someone loses their home. There is almost the same sense of urgency in the writing; which avoids musing on an obscure comment by Lord Denning from 1951 in favour of “This is a section 8 notice and this is what you need to know”.

The layout of the book follows tried and trusted LAG publication formats. Each chapter begins with a grey box containing the “Key” bullet points that help you to ascertain if what you need is in that section or elsewhere. When you only have 10 minutes you don’t want to be scanning around in the index, or flipping the pages around in a panic. It tends to worry the client.

In hunkering right down on the bones of it all, Simon and Sue have pulled off what is probably the most difficult trick in writing about law, making the arcane madness accessible to non-lawyers.

With respect to the many great and good housing lawyers out there, it is usually the case that communicating with non-lawyers is often not their strongest point. After 31 years of dealing with landlord and tenant law I confess I still regularly find myself reading a paragraph in most law books four or five times before it sinks in.

None of that here, which is why to my mind this book has much more widespread applications.

This is the sort of book that would be invaluable to everyone from CAB advisers, housing rights activists, (All 7 Safer Renting TROs have a copy)  even housing officers in councils and housing associations, who spend much of their time engaged in possession proceedings on the same routine issues but who don’t always grasp the full breadth of what can go wrong for their cases.

What jumped out at me though was how invaluable this book will be to local authority homelessness units, particularly homelessness prevention teams.

Since 2018 the main aim of homelessness has been on the prevention duty and the first part of prevention is looking to see if the home can be sustained, which will often entail being up to speed on possession rules and court procedures.

I’m occasionally called upon to conduct homelessness reviews at the later stages of intentionally homeless or vulnerability but because of my background in housing law, often see that the applicant wasn’t even homeless in the first place and they end up in expensive temporary accommodation, simply because the homelessness caseworker didn’t know enough about possession proceedings to know what could have been done at an earlier stage.

Which brings me to the various sections devoted to explaining tactics.

There is a common misunderstanding in homelessness prevention that if a possession order has already been issued then it’s all over but not so. Housing Possession Duty Desk teaches you about the conditions for having a possession order set-aside and how to ask for it. You learn when and how to get cases adjourned, how to get warrants suspended, how to vary orders etc.

I know from experience, particularly back in the old Mortgage Rescue Scheme days that buying time often is the most important thing you can do.

Usually duty desk teams are called upon precisely because the tenant or homeowner has been hiding their head in the sand and the extra time you can buy can allow for miracles to happen, or at least for Universal Credit to be paid, which is a miracle of sorts.

Homelessness prevention officers don’t have to be the ones representing in court but it’s tremendously important to know what the applicant can do to save their home, or even help them fill in the forms.

Mandatory claims for possession are always the trickiest, particularly large rent arrears, especially in the current climate but its not always the case that all is lost. Defects in paperwork are clearly identified throughout this book as well as what can be done about them.

For instance, did you know that it is entirely possible to go to stage one and argue that a notice hasn’t even been served? (page 62) and like a game of Snakes and Ladders, everyone goes back to the start and, as I stated above, the time it takes to get back to court can allow the defendant to resolve the problems.

As with all stages in possession proceedings, such tactics are not slam dunks but you need to know the options and every trick in the book is ……well,…….. in this book!. Including samples of all the relevant forms and notices so you can see what they look like.

Is anything left out? Yes. To really complete it there would need to be a chapter about the unpredictable nature of judges, their moods, preferences, prejudices, peccadillos and often downright cantankerousness but Sue and Simon are the ones who have to stand up in front of them each day, not me, so I’ll let that go and just whinge in my own time.

A really important book, especially given what we all have coming after 31st March.

 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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