Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic

Sue James with more tales from the housing duty desk. You can read other articles by Sue in the series here

Stepping through the doors of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), it was hard not to think of Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic. There were no moving staircases, but nothing was as it seemed, and everything shifted and reshaped. Words were spoken but no comprehensible sounds were heard by the audience.

I was at the Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes (HPCDS) ‘Market Engagement’ event put on by the MoJ to explain the madness of the new tenders for the housing duty possession schemes. The consultation in March had been on two main issues: price competitive tendering and ‘bundling up’ of courts in bidding lots.

The overwhelming response from practitioners and other interested bodies was ‘no, don’t do it, this is a very bad idea’. But the MoJ had ignored the response and gone ahead. Just like they had with the criminal tenders – until they backed down.

The consultation was vague, it gave rise to more questions – ones that we hoped would be answered at the meeting. But the meeting seemed to invoke market enragement rather than engagement.

The MoJ started by saying: ‘We are not here to talk about the consultation’. ‘Whaaat,’ shouted a colleague from the back of the room. It seems they weren’t there to talk about much. They certainly didn’t have the answers to the majority of questions asked by concerned practitioners.

There is to be a ‘soft cap’ on maximum price but no minimum price. The split between quality and price is 70/30 but no mechanism for rooting out speculative low bids, no detail on how agency arrangements will work, or the length of the contract.

It was made clear in the consultation and at the event that the government’s aim is ‘sustainability’. This is more magical thinking. The proposal for larger geographical areas is a barrier to sustainability rather than a solution. If I want to bid for the contract I now have at Brentford County Court I will also have to bid for Uxbridge too. I am connected in an advice community in Brentford so why do I now have to travel to Uxbridge as well?

It was insulting to sit in the MoJ and be told ‘the hope is that the busier courts will come in cheaper’. I had spent the day before at Wandsworth County Court as duty solicitor. I had ten cases. For those who have never experienced the intensity of seeing ten successive clients: meeting them, gathering the facts, checking any papers, talking to the landlord, returning to the client, trying to reach an agreement and then going into court – it’s a hard job. But an essential one post LASPO. The term ‘speed dating’ doesn’t do it justice.

The first clients I had that day turned up at 10.15am for a 10am hearing. Their case had been previously adjourned to file a defence. They hadn’t. They didn’t even know what the term meant. The second case, a man who was deaf, had come without any support. The third was a woman in temporary accommodation with seven children. The combination of the local housing allowance and the benefit cap meant that she couldn’t afford to live there. She had been in temporary accommodation for 14 years.

The list of people to see grows, the usher is getting impatient. I continue to see everyone who needs help – one after the other. My own client arrives, for whom I have instructed counsel. She is stressed and drinking cans of strong larger outside on the court step. I try to calm her. There have been two Closure Orders made against her home and her landlord is now using the anti-social mandatory ground for possession, despite her having started to get her life together and the treatment she needs. We are defending on public law grounds. Housing law isn’t simple, neither are the clients.

I leave court feeling numb. Colleagues tell the same story – after a busy day at court we sometimes stare at walls. The MoJ want this to be done cheaper? Why when we know the legal aid budget is unspent? Why is my work, my expertise, my experience not valued. I make a huge difference.

You need to have experienced practitioners on the front line to ensure those facing eviction have good representation. We need to invest more not less. We need joined up work – we need to advise the person and not just the problem. Ealing Law Centre has a ‘crisis navigator’ who attends court with me at Brentford. Once I have represented, he then supports the client to resolve the myriad of other issues – overwhelmingly benefit related. Doing the duty scheme on the cheap will inevitably end up with more evictions, more homelessness and just move the cost, not just financial, elsewhere.

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

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