The law of the jungle

More tales from the housing duty desk, by Sue James. The migrant camp at Calais is nicknamed the jungle. But that’s not what I saw.

What I found on a recent visit were homes. In the camp, it seems you make your home where you can, and out of whatever you can find. Elaborate structures are weaved through basic plastic tents. Creativity is the key: the castle adorned with fake fur (stars and stripes), with deely boppers tied to the pinnacle. Carefully tended plots growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. I saw hope, but also sadness, as the lemons will never ripen, and the pumpkins are not destined for Halloween. The camp is set once again for imminent demolition. But where will the inhabitants go, and how will they have the drive, or the will, to try and create another home, out of nothing?

For me, a housing lawyer in west London, the jungle is much closer to home. The weekly possession list is a fight for survival – to keep your home. You’re allotted five minutes of court time to do just that. It takes courage, and brains and most definitely a heart.

I met Steven, a 22 year old care leaver, at Brentford County Court. He was facing eviction that morning. He was extremely nervous in the interview room. He asked continually whether his landlord could see him through the small window in the door. He had a video, taken on his phone, of the place he lived. I looked at the small screen and saw the outside of the wooden structure he shared with the rats. They were living there rent free; he was paying £650 a month. Inside was worse. There was no heating and very basic bathing facilities. It was cold and damp and it was summer. All was fine until he lost his job and his landlord wouldn’t let him claim benefit. How could he – it’s a shed. No deely boppers in sight. It doesn’t even have an address. The post goes to his landlord`s house, and he controls everything. Hence the fear.

The landlord had prepared the papers himself. He sat proud across the table in the judge’s chambers. Thick gold chains were wrapped around his wrists and his neck. Huge gold rings displayed on his fingers. Steven sat alongside me. A small, delicate boy, terrified, even with the judge and me to protect him. I described the premises to the judge, whose eyebrows began to rise, and didn’t fall throughout the proceedings. Initially I was going to question whether you could have a tenancy for a shed, but didn’t need to explore that further, as the papers were defective and the case was struck out. The landlord didn’t accept the judge’s findings though, and started to protest in the court room. The aggression showed by the landlord was astounding given the surroundings. The judge explained that the court tape was continuing to record his outburst, and warned him against taking the law into his own hands.

After the hearing I introduced Steven to Vicky, from Ealing Law Centre, who was on duty with me that day. I was unable to take on his case, but I was worried what might happen to him over the weekend. I felt protective. He wasn’t much older than my own son. Vicky and the rest of the staff at Ealing contact him continually over the next few weeks (much to his annoyance) to find out how he is. It seems Steven returned to the shed that day (he had to, it was his home, after all), but now, thanks to the law centre’s intervention, he has a new place to live. Built out of real bricks and mortar. His journey is now at an end, at least for the time being.

Oh, and his ex- landlord has been served with a prohibition notice, so it looks as if the only future inhabitants of the shed will be the rats.


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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