The birdman of Fulham

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

Animals figure prominently in the housing possession world, dogs mostly. So it was a real treat to have such an array of domestic pets to barter over in Mr Ramsay’s case. When I heard the extent of his menagerie, I wasn’t really sure if he had a house or a pet shop. I suppose the deciding factor was the inability of Mr Ramsay to give any away, despite the possession proceedings – and the injunction.

Mr Ramsay sat in my office and tried to hide the fact that he had substantially breached his injunction by allowing nature to take its course. The order read: ‘The defendant remove all birds, animals and livestock, except one pair of budgerigars, one pair of finches, one rabbit, one guinea pig and two neutered cats.’

The order was five years old and in that time Mr Ramsay had slowly been increasing his collection. He now had 24 budgies, four lovebirds, four cockatoos, four finches, four canaries, six guinea pigs (now with four babies) and two cats. I’m not sure why they mostly came in fours, but he particularly wanted to keep his love birds: ‘They’re only this big,’ he said, as he formed a small circle with his thumb and index finger.

He became affectionately known as birdman around the office. He popped in often. He always had a smile and a twinkle in his eye. He was 80 years old living with his 50-year-old daughter in a large house. It had been their home for more than 40 years. His wife had left long ago and the other children grown. He was a sprightly pensioner, still looking after his schizophrenic daughter. She went to a day centre each weekday and he just seemed to potter around Fulham.

His landlord had started possession proceedings because of the condition of the property. Mr Ramsay wanted to stay. My instructions were to defend the case, but I was also exploring possible alternatives with social services and the housing department. It was agreed there would be a team meeting at the house and I was invited along. I had seen pictures of the inside, but they didn’t prepare me. I found myself sitting on an upturned box in his living room discussing possible solutions, amid the squeaking and scuttling of the guinea pigs inside the seven large cages. No-one mentioned the smell.

Mr Ramsay agreed that we could look round the rest of his house. The kitchen had given itself over to the birds and was now more of an aviary. Cages were stacked on top of each other (I think there were 12 in total), full of cheeping and chirruping birds. The kitchen table and the remaining work surfaces were completely covered in recycled plastic bottles in a variety of shapes and sizes, teaming with bird food. There seemed to have been a lot of spillage during the filling process. The remaining rooms were full of boxes and bags stacked high to the ceiling – as he was a hoarder too. We peered round the door to his bedroom, revealing a similar condition, but with a narrow path from the doorway to his bed (dividing the piles of boxes) just wide enough for him to slide through. Much of the stuff was new and still in its wrapper, including a pair of swimming shoes. I asked him when he would need them. He just laughed.

After a few months, I started to notice a change, as he seemed to understand me less and repeat himself frequently. I was concerned about him. A trip to the GP was arranged and he was referred to the hospital for tests, whereupon a diagnosis of a stroke was made. His capacity assessment concluded he was not able to provide me with instructions, so his eldest daughter became his litigation friend and she instructed me to settle the case. The tenancy was to be given up and new accommodation found.

It had been decided by the team working on the case that the best interests of Mr Ramsay and his daughter were that they be housed separately. He was to go into sheltered housing and his daughter in supported accommodation. Plans were put in place. His daughter wanted to live locally so she could get to her day centre but still be near her father. This took some time to achieve. The landlord was patient and understanding of the needs of Mr Ramsay and and the solicitors representing were respectful. It made a huge difference. It wasn’t a win or lose case, but one that needed sensitive solutions

The outcome wasn’t the one Mr Ramsay wanted. He had to give up his home of more than four decades and it was hard for him to envisage a different future. But staying wasn’t possible. I had kept him informed throughout and he was in court when the settlement was formally approved. It was sad to hear him protest to the judge – but it was the right decision.

And even though he didn’t want to leave, I’m informed (he fell out with me in the end) he’s doing well and enjoying his new life. And of course he didn’t go alone – he took the cats with him.


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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