The empathy deficit

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

The door to the judge’s chambers is shut but you can still hear the shouting from within. People start to look up and around, slightly embarrassed. The shouting continues from inside the court and I catch the eye of a man waiting. He looks directly at me and says: ‘It’s hard losing your home, you know.’

Austerity justice comes at a cost. It’s also compounded by welfare reform and draconian legislation. We have a provision for social landlords to take possession on mandatory Ground 8 (just two months rent arrears). We have a benefits system (Universal Credit) that builds in a delay in paying rent of seven weeks. It doesn’t take long to see the cause and effect.

With two perfectly good discretionary grounds to pursue your rent arrears claim, why would a housing association not want a judge to oversee the reasonableness of their decision?

I’ve not found an answer.

A housing officer wasn’t able to shed any light on this question when I asked her last week at Brentford County Court. My client, Vicky had suffered terrible injuries from her ex-partner, had fled and was now safe and her children thriving.

She needed to keep her home near her family. The arrears had been caused by problems with housing benefit when she started work. Documents were posted and lost and her claim was cancelled, although she didn’t know until she got a letter from her landlord. She was now in receipt of housing benefit but the arrears were more than two months.

When Vicky walked into the interview room I wasn’t sure which one of the two women was the tenant. I had been told by the usher that Vicky had her mother with her for support. Vicky looked older, defeated, her eyes puffy from crying. She was terrified of losing her home. She told me of the incompetence of the housing benefit department, the lack of support from her landlord and the fear of being homeless again.

I read her papers. It was clear her landlords were pursuing Ground 8. I decided to go and talk to the housing officer before informing Vicky her landlord was taking a mandatory ground for possession, and what this meant for her.

The housing officer’s face was blank when I described the violence, the incompetence, the potential harm to the children. She replied: ‘Yeah, we found out about the violence last week, but it doesn’t change anything — the arrears are too high and we want outright possession.’ No emotion. And no persuading by me could make her change her mind.

And I tried.

Sometimes it’s hard not to let the anger, the injustice seep out. What’s better though is to have a public law defence strong enough to make it over the threshold. And I had a good judge. ‘It must be right, mustn’t it, what Ms James is saying,’ the judge asked. ‘It would be wholly disproportionate to order possession today.’

The housing officer tried, without success, to argue against. It didn’t help that she was also chewing gum.

On this occasion the facts were with me, but these cases are hard to win.

In another case the facts weren’t as compelling, but with the arrears only £50.00 over the two month’s threshold I tried to reason with the housing officer: ‘Surely you don’t want possession in this case, she’s a single mother with two young children. It’s the equivalent of one day`s rent,’ I asked.

‘Yes we do,’ came back the reply.

Why do social landlords take Ground 8 cases? Housing officers don’t seem to know – some of them don’t even understand they are requesting a mandatory ground for possession. It’s not uncommon for them to say: ‘Let’s leave it for the judge to decide.’

So, who is deciding and why?

Are the people making these decisions too far removed to understand the consequences — to see the effect of their decision-making.

Once back in the office I googled the word empathy. It’s a word I’ve been thinking about since I saw an exhibition at The Empathy Museum (you get to put on an MP3 player and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.) I found that Barack Obama was more worried about the ‘empathy deficit’ than the federal deficit during his term in office (he was right to be).

So, is that what it is – an empathy deficit?

But I also discovered that in 2011 scientists in Chicago found that rats would release another rat from a cage without being given any reward. To test the empathy theory even further scientists presented the rat with two cages – one with another rat and the other with chocolate. Faced with this dilemma the rat opened both cages and shared the chocolate.

So, there is hope? The election results certainly suggest a change, a possible reduction in the empathy deficit perhaps. The community response to the fire at Grenfell Tower shows that we aren’t lacking in empathy. What we need though, is for others to see what we see.

Social welfare lawyers walk many miles wearing their client’s shoes. Let’s tell their stories.


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. Pingback: The Happy List, Growing Up with Cancer, Care or Custody and more in our Storytelling Highlights • sounddelivery

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *