[Ben Reeve Lewis has a few things to say about the law …]
The impetus for this week’s Newsround comes not from housing but general news and a personal malaise as an enforcement officer for the council.
Bear with me and I apologise to Tessa and her profession from the start.
Getting away with it
First off was the news of the letters to the ‘On the run’ terrorists, covered in just about every organ, that they can relax. Nobody is interested in doing them for the people they killed in the Northern Ireland troubles.
Then there was the story of Lewis Gill who received a paltry 4 years sentence for killing Andrew Young with a punch for complaining about his mate riding a bike on the pavement.
Finally the two guys who bit the ear off of actor Clive Mantle found not guilty, saying they acted in self-defence.
Now I’ve been in fights as a youngster that I would class as self-defence but I never felt the urge to bite their ear off……run away, yes. Perhaps I just wasn’t hungry at the time.
Telling it like it is
The very first housing law training course I ever delivered was in 1998.
I remember it clearly. It was at the Warren in Hayes, Kent. The Met police training centre. 42 officers, post lunch, all pissed and in uniform. They had just endured some Nit-Wit social worker wittering on for an hour about being more empathetic with criminals and I had to wake them up.
I began by saying on impulse:-
“When I first started as an enforcement officer I thought it was simply a case of identify the perpetrator and the crime and then prosecute them. Since then I have come to understand that it is virtually impossible to do because the law gets in the way. It’s no wonder that you lot fit people up from time to time”.
There was a horrendous 5 second silence, during which I thought “Well that was a joke too far” before they all collapsed into laughter.
Trainer lesson #1…..get the audience on your side from the outset. But this basic but tempting truth comes back to me 16 years later.
When the law is unhelfpul
I work in housing law but I also wonder what use is it to people at the sharp end? I sometimes feel that in endlessly explaining legal principles to landlords and tenants I may as well be trying to describe Japanese Arithmetic for all the effect it has.
Last week a tenant called me at 3:30pm on a Friday saying his landlord had pulled all the fuses on his supply.
The court offices shut at 2pm so I couldn’t get an injunction but he wanted the legal book thrown at his landlord. I suggested going to Wickes, buying some fuses and replacing them. He railed “BUT THIS ISNT RIGHT….I WANT HIM DONE…I WANT HIM NICKED”.
My reply was “It’s late afternoon on Friday. The weather forecast is cold. Do you want to be right or warm?”
The fact is, as is the case generally, the law often doesn’t help and just going down the common sense route is often the sanest response.
Tessa recently highlighted the case of Masih v. Yusuf (2014). The county court judge dismissed the landlords claim for possession based on rent arrears because he had put on the notice “Rent owed”. The possession judge took the view that the correct wording should be “Rent lawfully due” and threw the case out.
This dragged all the way to the court of appeal who said that if rent was ‘Owed’ then it stand to reason that it must have been ‘Lawfully due’.
Well there’s a nice £50,000 for the legal team.
Don’t get me wrong I understand why these linguistic shenanigans are important in the long term to people who work within the law and society as a whole but Christ on a bike, sometimes I wonder where the common sense has gone from some DJs.
A decision which isn’t a decision
Nearly Legal ran a typical piece of local authority legal nonsense about Harrow council finding themselves in court over a decision that they argued wasn’t a decision. Read the article for the full explanation.
In dealing with a homeless family sleeping on the street and deciding to house the children but not the parent Harrow argued that they had made an ‘Assessment’. Which isn’t the same as a ‘Decision’, so therefore they weren’t ‘in the frame’, as they used to say in The Sweeney. As Giles Peaker comments in the article:-
“This judicial review is possibly one for the ‘what were they thinking?’ pile.”
Another homelessness report
Breaking away from legal nonsense but still staying with housing nonsense, this week saw the publication of yet another report on homelessness this time by Shelter and Crisis who have been busy bees surveying the conditions of homeless families housed in the private rented sector following the introduction of the suitability order in November 2012.
The report highlights damp, rats, asthma….even damp rats with asthma, wheezing throughout the night and keeping the tenants awake.
Campbell Robb said quite rightly:-
“These are shocking personal accounts of poor and insecure living conditions which have a serious impact on people’s health and lives.”
So why do I refer to this as ‘housing nonsense’? Well it’s the comment of housing (junior?) Minister Kris Hopkins who starts out supporting Mr Robb:-
“We are tackling the small minority of rogue landlords – from giving extra funding to councils to tackle beds in sheds, to putting in place a package of measures to improve property conditions”.
And then blows it by adding:-
“However, we need to get the balance right, as excessive regulation would force up rents and mean less choice for tenants”.
Taking the report’s findings on board I find it difficult to see what choices these tenants have right now. Councils too have little choice as homelessness continues to rise and they are breaking the law if they don’t re-house people who pass the five tests, so are desperate for anywhere that they can discharge their duty.
Of course under the new law the accommodation offered must be “Suitable”, which includes property conditions, so challenges would be in order if they are that bad. However changes in legal aid limits the support a person can get for challenging homelessness decisions, so the hapless applicant would be on their own.
The joke at the end
And finally,a joke that the homelessness reviews officer told me this week. A man goes to the doctors with a steering wheel attached to the front of his trousers. The doctor says “What on earth is that?” and the man replies “I don’t know but it’s driving me nuts?”
See ya next week.