Government proposals for a new specialist housing court to expedite disputes between landlord and tenants ‘miss the point’. According to a new consultation launched yesterday, the Ministries of Justice and Housing, Communities and Local Government is seeking views on ‘a single path of redress for both landlords and tenants’.
The consultation reckons that claims for landlord possession, from the issue of proceedings to bailiff eviction, take up to 43 weeks on average however the average time taken for private landlord cases was 16 weeks. ‘We are also aware that a landlord’s decision to seek possession often comes after a protracted period of forebearance with the tenant in which they typically agree for the tenant to pay less than the normal amount of rent (or sometimes no rent at all) whilst they rearrange their finances,’ it continued. ‘More experienced landlords with large numbers of properties are better prepared to take action promptly, whilst landlords with one property (who make up 78% of landlords in the sector12) are not.’
‘Everyone deserves to live in a safe and decent home, and this government is bringing about real change in making renting more secure,’ said the communities secretary, James Brokenshire ‘This is particularly important for families and vulnerable tenants who live with the fear of suddenly being forced to move, or fear eviction if they complain about problems with their home. It is also important for landlords who, in a minority of cases, struggle to get their property back when they have reason to do so.’
Whilst the consultation recognises that experience is often ‘daunting ‘ for tenants, there is no mention of legal aid being available. Housing advice was removed from the legal aid scheme under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) cuts except where there is a risk of homelessness. There are court duty schemes sometimes available for tenants – but coverage is not comprehensive and, even if it is available, tenants might well end up representing themselves with no prior legal advice (here).
Sue James, a housing lawyer for over 20 years at Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, argued that the consultation missed the point. ‘The majority of clients I see at court have protected characteristics and the possession cases for rent arrears have a benefit issue that needs to be resolved. If legal aid was available for welfare benefits then these cases wouldn’t end up in court,’ she said. ‘If housing lawyers were able to see clients before possession proceedings are threatened, then we could resolve cases more quickly and before possession proceedings are commenced.’
‘If the courts were funded better then there wouldn’t be a delay between possession and enforcement and hearings would be listed more quickly. The call for evidence by MHCLG misses these points, and misses an opportunity to provide a real solution.’
Leading members of the judiciary have spoken positively about the idea. For example, Sir Geoffrey Vos, serves currently as Chancellor of the High Court, declared himself a ‘great supporter of a Housing Court’ earlier in the year. However he added: ‘We would not want to lose the benefit of the litigant in person friendly atmosphere of the tribunals in domestic housing cases, particularly where vulnerable parties are involved, nor would we want to be heavy handed in imposing costs consequences in such cases.’