Hackney Law Centre: (1) Housing cases

 

Henry Brooke in conversation with the team

 

When Lord Bach’s Commission received evidence last year, we were told again and again about the damage that was being done because the Coaltion Government stopped any grants of legal aid for frontline “legal help” on benefits and housing problems, given at a small fixed fee, long before problems escalated into the crises that are created by evictions and homelessness.

We were told that the cost of restoring it – and for frontline legal help in private family law cases – would be comparatively small, and that it would be much more than offset by the savings that would be made in the expense of possession proceedings and wrangles over homelessness, he loss of jobs, the cost of moving homes, the cost to the NHS of dealing with the walking wounded of the housing crisis day after day etc etc.

I am not talking about millions of pounds for “fat cat lawyers”. I am talking about the restoration of fixed fees of £157 for a few hours work, or possibly remuneration at £63 per hour for a few hours.

I see that Hodge Jones and Allen, one of the few major London firms who continue to act for legally aided clients in the housing field — they were highly commended in the recent competition for the Solicitors’ Journal legal aid firm of the year – said this yesterday:

With regards to access to justice, the Law Society has listed nine actions for the new government with number 1 as

“Reinstate legal aid for early advice, particularly in housing and family law. Without early advice, relatively minor legal problems can escalate, creating health, social and financial problems, and put pressure on public services.”

We at HJA support The Law Society’s vision for law and justice. Why should a qualifying tenant living in a property with disrepair have to wait until the disrepair poses a serious risk of harm to health and safety before they can get free advice under legal aid?  Equally why should a qualifying tenant have to wait until a Housing Benefit problem, usually through no fault of their own, escalates to the point where the landlord initiates possession proceedings, before they can get free advice under legal aid?  The Law Society has calculated that legal aid for early housing advice could be restored for around £2 million a year.

… We echo the Law Society’s call for legal aid to be reinstated to all qualifying persons experiencing a housing problem such as so called ‘minor’ disrepair or rent arrears which they are unable to resolve themselves.

I couldn’t agree more. When I visited Hackney Law Centre yesterday and talked to their inspiring staff, I met Nathaniel Mathews, their senior housing officer (pictured above), who has been working in this field since 1993.  I told him that my wife and I had felt a sense of despair when we read his recent blog about a typical day in his working life. Last night he sent me this message:

“You were kind enough to read my blog and say there was despair. Yes, but there is hope. That must conquer all.”

What a remarkable man! I too, live in hope, that at long long last we may see some sensible change of policy towards some of the most vulnerable people in our society, even if there is no whisper of a realisation of this need in the Conservative Party manifesto.

Here is the story of his day: first as duty solicitor at the newish Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court[1] in Gee Street, and then back at the office in Lower Clapton Road.

First, three new clients at Gee Street:

No 1, a single parent, has an eviction listed in two hours. She had serious abdominal surgery this summer. She was advised to come off her Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). She then failed to obtain ESA and was told to go back to JSA. She was then advised by benefit officers to reclaim ESA. This is again refused, apparently at a time when she was having surgery. The Judge stays the possession warrant for two months.

No 2 was rehoused after being shot twice. She used to work with young offenders, more recently as a teaching assistant through an agency. Her income is unstable and in school holidays she is forced to claim Universal Credit (UC). Under UC Housing Benefit (HB) is sent directly to you, not your landlord, every month (not every week). The theory is that people with proper jobs get paid monthly and that this will teach her proper budgeting skills. But she has a weekly tenancy and is paid by the week, when there is work.

“I wish I had never claimed Universal Credit”

she says, and offers to cash in her pension. The Judge and the Housing Officer both feel sorry and embarrassed, and the case is adjourned generally on her promise to pay the rent plus 5 pounds a week to the arrears. As she leaves, she promises to pay off her arrears once the compensation for her injuries arrives (if it does).

No 3 worked as a bartender and a cashier, always on the edge. He fell apart after he was assaulted and he has just gone onto sickness benefits. After waiting for three hours for his case to be called he finally had to leave due to an anxiety attack. His housing officer is late and apologetic: there was a screw-up at head office. The housing officer agrees to adjourn the hearing for two weeks while his HB is adjusted to take into account his recently awarded ESA. During the long wait at court he tells the duty solicitor he is in despair, because the new Housing Act is the death knell for social housing.

Cases of this type occupy on average 90 minutes at the court and 90 minutes writing letters afterwards. A fixed fee for £68 is paid for each – which works out at about £23 per hour.

Nathaniel wrote:

“Feeling mildly cheerful at only three cases I jump on the 55 bus and head back to the office. The sun is up, the air is clear, what could possibly go wrong? Then I am hit by a blizzard of homelessness.”

 

No 4 has lived for years in a fog of mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence. Every time she has a kid the Council takes the child away. Incredibly, the Council does not think she is vulnerable, so she will be on the street tomorrow.

“Time to get a Judicial Review cranked up”.

No 5, who is almost 60, interrupts me. She has had a thyroid removed and is diabetic, but she does not yet inject insulin. She hears voices and is long term depressed. She is on ESA (a fairly stringent benefit that tests functional impairment). The Council says she is not vulnerable, and she will be on the streets quite soon.

No 6 is a single mum who has recently given birth. As a European she is required to work in order to claim Tax Credits and housing. Yet despite her best efforts the company who employs her on a zero hours contract fails to give her the paperwork the Council wants to verify her activities. As a result she and her baby will be homeless on Friday.

No 7 and his family were evicted the day before yesterday. He suffers from mental illness and relies on local services. His kids are in local schools, but the emergency accommodation he is offered is outside London. Terrified of being uprooted, he refuses. The Council appears to have closed his case and will do nothing more to help.

“The Supreme Court says this is the wrong approach, yet it happens every day.”

No 8 was found to be intentionally homeless after she realised that her landlord was going to have her home repossessed because he could not keep up with the mortgage. She kept the rent moneys so that she could rent somewhere else. However, she could not find a landlord prepared to help benefit claimants, even with her nest egg for a deposit. She is worried that social workers will take her kid into care in five days’ time because she is homeless.

No 9 left care and started to work in various nurseries. Tragically this success story foundered when due to the various changes in her jobs, the long hours and the delayed HB assessments, she lost the plot, had a nervous breakdown, fell into rent arrears and was evicted. Because she has been found by the Council to be intentionally homeless by the Council, she may risk her own child being taken into care. She, too, will be homeless in the next few days.

No 10 worked for 30 years in Sainsbury’s. He then became too ill to carry on. He is 60 with various ailments, high blood pressure and depression. He has paid into the system all his life and did nothing wrong.  He is not vulnerable enough, it seems.  At the last minute, however, the Council offers him sheltered housing.  The problem is, the offer hasn’t come through yet, and his temporary accommodation was terminated yesterday.

Nathaniel ends “his day in the life of…” by saying:

As I foolishly wander by reception No 11 grabs me. Her marital home was sold eight years ago after mortgage arrears arose, but there was a substantial equity left after the mortgage was paid off.  She has been homeless, she tells me, for those eight years because the lending company has tied her up with paperwork ever since.

All in one damn day.

At this point my brain shuts down and I have to leave the rest of the alphabet[2] until tomorrow. What conclusions can be drawn from a single day? Is it that I hate the various Councils who have made palpably inhumane decisions about the vulnerability of sick people and are prepared to put them on the streets? Not really.

Funding cuts mean there are fewer people working in those Councils, and diminishing properties in London for people of little means. Yet I wish that the wealthier leafy suburbs of West London would stop dumping poor people in East London, abnegating all responsibility, and then turning to their voters with a big smile and telling their voters that the reason that they have lower Council Tax is that they are more efficient.

More efficient at turning a blind eye to the disabled, perhaps. Is it that there are more evictions and more homeless problems but less lawyers to help? Yes. The Legal Aid cuts have meant that in every single one of the cases that I have mentioned a loss of service for people with money problems have pushed the household into homelessness. Yet even though Legal Aid is still there to prevent the roof over your head, fewer lawyers want to do it.

The warhorses retire. The colts shy away. Is it that poor people and people of modest means are being forced out of London? Yes. Those of you who believe that this is healthy expression of the free market, consider. Where will the bartenders and cleaners you rely on live? When you have a stroke, who will change your bedpan? Is it that Universal Credit is the panacea? No.

The machinery so far has transferred HB applications to the Department of Work and Pensions, who have lost every letter that I have written. This does not look promising. Is it that the Housing Act will fundamentally wreck social housing? Yes. Council Housing will be decimated, which is an expression that is almost always used wrongly. Think 10% of Council Stock being sold off every year without any replacements for those who need homes.

Am I in despair? No. Against all the odds, with three solicitors leaving and awaiting replacements, with our debt adviser breaking his leg at our front door, with our administrator Bella injuring her knee collecting the DX, we have something special.

We have the volunteers.  Angharad who was hit by a car on her way to issue a Judicial Review, but issued.  Justin, who helped us win three asylum cases in one day.  Aniko, who persuaded the Council not to call the police when Mrs Angry came to discuss her rent arrears, then got a £3,000 backdated benefit claim. Onuka, who holds the fort.  Welcome to London, the most affluent city on Earth. Welcome to the Jungle.”

 

I will return to some of these issues in my next blog.

 

[1] How well I remember attending “possession days” in the 1960s at the Bow County Court under Mr Registrar Riches, or at the old Shoreditch County Court under Mr Registrar Everett when I used to go there to represent legally aided clients.

[2] I have substituted numbers for the fictitious names he gave his clients, from Alberta to Kerry.

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