Postcards from the edge

More tales from the housing duty desk, by Sue James

‘This case would be so much better without my client.’ It’s a thought most of us have had at some point I’m sure but, inevitably, clients are kind of essential. Or at least I thought so until recently, when I encountered Juana, my Spanish señora.

I could hear a commotion in the waiting area of Hammersmith County Court. I poked my head out of the duty office to find an elderly woman shouting across the room. She wasn’t happy. She was dressed completely in grey – matching jacket and trousers with a felt hat tipped to one side. Her grey tights poking out the top of her peep-toed sandals. Costume jewellery hung around her neck and wrists.

The usher, Christine, told me the woman’s name was Juana and she was in need of representation. I invited her into the duty room to take her instructions. She didn’t have any papers but she told me people believed she was rich ‘because of this’ as she swept her hand along the whole length of her outfit, ‘but no rich, it’s H&M’. I said she looked very nice. We tried to communicate but that was hard – and not because of her Spanish origins. The solicitor for the landlord gave me a copy of Juana’s rent account. They didn’t really want to evict her but the arrears were increasing. Juana’s housing officer had tried to get a medical assessment in the past because they felt she lacked capacity, but they had failed.

We sat and waited for the judge. This provided a further opportunity for Juana to shout across the waiting room. She was of the view that the housing officer owed her £10 which she wanted back to buy some cigarettes. She had already threatened to kill Christine (who was taking the threat personally) so I asked Juana to apologise. Which she did – very sweetly. I thought she was fun.

Directions were ordered by the judge and I agreed to take on Juana’s case. I wrote down details of an appointment at the law centre the following day and gave her my address, thinking that would be the last time I saw her.

Amazingly Juana made it to the office. This time dressed entirely in beige, including her hat. She was happy. She was going to Spain on Monday. I had her bank statements which showed she had only £15 in her account. ‘How was it possible?’ I asked her. This didn’t trouble her as she had bought her ticket already. She was going for ‘a year, a month, a week’. Then she asked me for £5 to buy some cigarettes. I offered her a food bank voucher. ‘I no want food, I want cigarettes,’ she forcefully replied. I asked her if she had ever been in hospital. She had ‘but I escape in my slippers’, she said. I believed her. She left me with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks promising me a present from Spain.

Juana’s case was listed for six weeks later to enable a capacity assessment to be completed and time to sort out the rent arrears. The date seemed to come around remarkably quickly. I hadn’t seen her although she had found time to send me a number of postcards from her trip. I telephoned her. She was still in Spain, ‘I no come back. I see doctor.’ I tried to work around this problem and managed to ascertain that she had a son who could possibly help. I tracked him down and impressed upon him the precarious position his mother was in – that there was a very strong possibility she would lose her home. He told me Juana had spent a number of years in psychiatric hospitals (mostly in Spain), and he hadn’t seen her for some time. He wasn’t convinced that he should attend court in her absence but did agree to start a payment plan. So I’d made some progress, at least.

I attended court knowing I didn’t have a client or legal aid (of course she hadn’t answered the endless enquiries from the Legal Aid Agency about her finances). But I did have a few payments on the rent account and some nice postcards from Spain. What could go wrong? Nothing, it would seem, as the judge (my all-time favourite) agreed to a further adjournment on the basis that I obtain a capacity assessment from Spain – or at least use my best endeavours to do so. Thankfully, there was no chance of my going to prison this time (See here).

I sent off letters to sunnier skies in the hope of obtaining some evidence of Juana’s medical condition, or perhaps persuading Juana herself to embark upon a trip home (although when I spoke to her on the telephone she wasn’t keen). Another six weeks passed and it was Groundhog Day: no client, no capacity assessment; but I did have evidence of the regular payments made by her son to take with me to court. Amazingly, I got the landlord to accept a general adjournment on terms and the judge agreed.

Who needs a client, eh?


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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