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May 6, 2015

Eviction, damp, harassment – housing problems cause misery but legal help is in short supply

The reality of how people get evicted comes alive in a series of brilliant blogs by Rebecca Omonira-Ovekanmi.  They bring alive the misery which causes eviction and the misery eviction causes.  Rebecca observes people on the point of losing their homes.  All get the help of a duty solicitor at the last minute but the solicitor can only give crisis advice.  Everyone facing eviction has a right to a legally aided solicitor to work properly on their case, but many people get to the court door without knowing that.  Eviction is one of the only bits of housing law where legal aid is still available.  Tenants trying to get their landlords to make repairs, tenants who can’t get their deposit back and tenants who suffer harassment have no right to legal aid.   Since most people in this situation can’t afford to pay for a lawyer, they either suffer these terrible problems, or they try to get legal remedy on their own.  It is incredibly difficult to negotiate the legal system if you are not a lawyer, even more so if you are stressed and do not have a high level of education.  The legal system is designed for lawyers.  The tragedy of the cuts to legal aid is that they were made without any fundamental reform of the system.  The charity Justice recently published a very good report on delivering justice in an age of austerity.   The report points out that litigants in person will never have equal access to justice if the system is merely tweaked.  The report cites a very wise Lord Justice Briggs

“9.13 In that respect, I consider that three common misconceptions need to be put to one side at the outset. The first is that a shared concern about the unfairness of current practice and procedure vis a vis litigants in person can be properly addressed merely by taking steps on the periphery to ameliorate them. Access to justice is not provided by making practice and procedure only moderately unfair to litigants in person, rather than (as at present) seriously unfair to them.

9.14 The second misconception is to think that the unfairness to litigants in person inherent in practice and in procedure can be satisfactorily addressed at trial (or at some significant interim hearing) simply by the patience, courtesy and investigative court-craft of the experienced judge. In many cases, if not the vast majority, it will by then be too late, because the cumulative hurdles which litigants in person will by then have failed satisfactorily to overcome will have left them with insuperable disadvantages by the time they get to trial or to a hearing…

9.15 The third is that written descriptions of practice and procedure truly intelligible to the average litigant in person can be satisfactorily formulated by lawyers…”

Justice recommended a radical reform to the system involving the introduction of a new role – a primary dispute resolution officer – and of an integrated online and telephone platform offering comprehensive legal information.  Justice’s proposals are excellent, but unfortunately such  radical reform  of the system does not feature in any of the manifestos.  So we may be faced with more fiddling while Rome burns.