A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The Case of the Unintelligible man
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TROs) work for local council’s providing advice on landlord tenant law and investigating allegations of harassment and Illegal Eviction and prosecuting landlords. All names are false but the stories are true.
This week’s tale is a typical example of the “I need to bang my head against the wall” type.
Mr Li walks in to reception with not a single word of English in his vocabulary. Native Mandarin speaker in fact, so to interview him I need to use Pearl Linguistics, a telephone translation service that is fairly expensive and charges by the minute I believe.
His story is that he went to a local accommodation agent and got a flat upon paying one month’s rent in advance and 1one month’s deposit, simple enough but pay attention because this is the last time anything simple will come up in the ridiculous story.
He moved in but there was little furniture, particularly no bed and no settee. The landlord, Mr Hardy promised to put them in for him. That was two weeks before and still no furniture and now he says he has returned home and found the locks changed so he can’t get in at all.
I call the agent and they tell me to send him back down and they will sort it out.
Two days later he comes in again with the same story. However the interpreter asks me if there is anyone else who can interpret because she can’t understand much of what he says.
I call housing benefit for information and they advise me that the landlord is being done for fraud by a neighbouring council. I ring the landlord and I swear to God he sounds exactly like Dell-Boy in only fools and horses, all unnaturally upbeat and fake-matey. His version of events is peppered with “Yeah sweet mate” and “Awright geezer?”. I sound a bit like that myself, having been born and brought up in Deptford, but he makes me sound like the queen.
He swears blind that he hasn’t changed the locks and that there was no arrangement to put furniture in, but he ends the call telling me to send him to the flat and he will sort him out. This is on the Friday. I foolishly think that is the end of it.
On Tuesday Mr Li appears again and I get back on to Pearl Linguistics for an interpreter. The interpreter, a different one this time says she can’t understand Mr Li and she thinks he doesn’t understand her. I ask her if he has a strong regional accent and she says that she just thinks he “Lacks intelligence”.
I manage to establish that he didn’t get back in after all so I call the landlord back. I can tell from his voice that he has just woken up. When I ask him what happened he told me he had been called abroad at the last minute. I get annoyed because I feel he is taking the mick (or “Pulling my plonker” to use a phrase he would prefer) and threaten him with court action, at which point he calls me something I didn’t quite catch but I think it was “Banker”……although I fail to see the connection! And he hangs up on me.
Here is my quandary….and also the legal point here. If, as seems likely, Mr Li has been unlawfully evicted without a court order, it is a criminal offence. I can go to court and get an injunction for re-entry. However, Mr Li would have to sign an affidavit and I couldn’t be cross-examined on that in court because I don’t speak Mandarin. I would need an interpreter to both take his affidavit and turn up in front of the judge to translate and that ain’t gonna happen.
I decide to take a punt on it and see if I can blag it, because I do several injunctions a month and the judges have got to know me, (albeit it in an eyes raised to heaven not- you- again kind of way). So through a phone interpreter I take his affidavit and fill in the forms and hope to get a sympathetic judge. I get him to sign the paperwork (all this takes about an hour and half through the interpreter…..who like the others can’t understand him very well). I print off a map for him and make sure he knows what time to meet me and where.
The next day, I am at court, Mr Li doesn’t turn up. I go back to the office and he is sitting in reception. Back onto Pearl, it was as if we had never spoken the day before and he just repeats the same story he told me the first day. The interpreter tells me that she can’t understand him and in her opinion he has learning difficulties.
Quandary number 2: I can’t understand him. The interpreters can’t understand him. He may have learning difficulties. Can I trust what he is telling me? I could use the protection of Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act, which allows for the use of force for re-entry where someone has been unlawfully evicted but only if there is nobody in the property to object to the force being used…..if there is then you are burgling…….and we don’t want that now do we?
I get back on the phone to the interpreters to tell them to tell him that I don’t see what I can do for him given all the problems. The interpreter tells me she can’t understand him and he doesn’t understand what I am telling him either.
So there we are. Two people from different continents, sitting in an interview room staring at each other and wondering what to say next.
He has since been back 4 or 5 times and has been to housing benefit and the single homeless project. Every call comes through me at some point and I have to explain the whole thing again. Everyone says the interpreter can’t understand him……I say “I know”!!!!!
At one point I even called the local Indo-Chinese community support group but they said they didn’t have anyone who can help either.
So Mr Li continues to wander between the various statutory and voluntary agencies in the borough. Nobody can understand him and he doesn’t understand the interpreters.
Has he been illegally evicted? Probably. Can I do anything to resolve it, not really. I cant even tell him why I can’t help him.
Now when he appears in reception I hide under the desk and let the receptionists send him away, because I firmly believe that there is no problem in life that cannot be dealt with by looking it squarely in the face and pretending it doesn’t exist!
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a Tenancy Relations Officer and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more.