Why it’s a Dickens of a job at this time of year

More tales from the housing duty desk. Read other articles in the series here

We tell our children it’s not about the winning, but the taking part. As a lawyer, I know that’s not really true, especially when the loss of your client’s home is at stake. And sometimes it’s hard not to get involved, especially at this time of year.

Like the time I called a landlord ‘Scrooge’ as we left court. It had been a particularly frustrating hearing, probably because I had no grounds to stop the eviction. I just thought I’d give it a go because it felt wrong. Margaret had lived in her flat for 11 years, but it was an assured shorthold tenancy and the landlord had brought it to an end with just two months’ notice, as he was entitled to do. She was 74 years old. She had turned up to court in her best coat and hat, her white, fluffy hair nestling beneath. All Margaret wanted was one more Christmas at home.

The eviction was taking place on the last possible day before the bailiffs finished evicting for the year. The court has a policy of having a moratorium over Christmas, but she had just missed it. The judge said his hands were tied, but emphatically put my case to the landlord, as did I. After 15 minutes of discussion between the three of us, the landlord still refused, on the basis it would take another six weeks for a new warrant date, and he wasn’t prepared to wait. I felt cross. The injustice rose up from my belly, into my mouth and the word Scrooge just came out, loudly, as we left the courtroom. ‘What did you just say?’ the landlord demanded. I fudged a response: ‘I was thinking it was just like Scrooge, you know, an eviction at Christmas. It seemed to satisfy him. And was true, after all.

Dickens was brilliant at telling tales to highlight the condition of the poor. And I sometimes think of him when I’m trying to stop the evictions on a Friday morning at Brentford County Court. His stories are just as relevant today as they were 200 years ago, although it seems the workhouse has now been replaced by the foodbank. The names of the people in my stories aren’t quite as funny as in his, but the poverty is the same: Samantha, with only one light bulb who moved it from room to room. Her ESA was stopped after a medical assessment. No benefit was paid while she appealed. By the time I saw her she had been without any income for more than two months. Or Judith, who was being evicted for rent arrears because of the bedroom tax. Her daughter had drowned while on holiday with her grandparents the year before. She now has a spare room, hence the reduction in her housing benefit.

We don’t ever get used to hearing these stories, but we forget that others never hear them. And sometimes, we housing lawyers sit, over a pint, trading our tales like old war stories. My favourite has to be the Not So Big Bank Robbery (thank you, Angus). Angus had a client who had won damages from her landlord, but died before it could be paid. After many months, he had managed to track down the client’s mother, Gladys, to pay the money to her. Gladys had never had a bank account, so Angus took her to the branch below his office to open one. While they were there, a masked man entered and attempted (unsuccessfully) to rob the bank. Gladys didn’t seem to notice. What did Angus do? ‘Put it this way Sue, I wasn’t proud of myself.’

Maybe so. But he should be proud of how determined housing lawyers are at taking up the rights of others and fighting for them. Faced with a decision letter of ‘no room at the inn’, they wouldn’t be content with offering a bit of old frankincense or myrrh (whatever that is anyway), they would be sending a letter before claim and starting that judicial review.

Happy Christmas.






About Sue James

Sue has been a housing solicitor for more than 20 years. She has worked in a number of law centres and private practice. In addition she was a mental health solicitor representing the most vulnerable people detained under the Mental Health Act. She has a strategic role in the running of Hammersmith Law Centre where she is currently employed as the responsible legal officer

There are 1 comments

  1. Its a tough job and a tough climate for people out there. I had a similar cab in the 1990s and it was tough then, purely as a ca volunteer mind, it must be harder now with all the regressive legislative changes. Nice to hear law centres continue to represent, and champion the needs of the majority. Lots of self interested scrooges out there! Keep up the good work.


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