Solicitor Keith Lomax writes (below) about tenants’ eligibility for legal aid when facing eviction and how to challenge Councils’ decisions to refuse discretionary housing payments.
Keith has specialised in housing since he qualified as a solicitor and has developed particular interest and experience in public law and human rights, regulatory law, planning, employment, education, and community care.
There have been severe cutbacks in legal aid, but legal aid is still available for people facing possession of their homes, or eviction after a possession order has been made.
As with legal aid generally you need to be financially eligible but this is rarely a problem for people who can’t afford to pay off their rent arrears. You can check your eligibility for legal aid here on the Gov.uk website
There are also ‘duty solicitor schemes’ at courts on days when possession cases are listed, so tenants can get access to a duty solicitor on the day they attend court – definitely at Leeds, and should be at Halifax. (Editor’s note: see JKC comment below – there is a duty solicitor for possession cases at Halifax County Court – tel: 01422 344700)
Use the law to challenge Council refusal of Discretionary Housing Payments
A lot of cases that are now coming before the courts are where people were not in arrears before the housing benefit cap and bedroom tax hits. Discretionary housing payments are there to be claimed. If the Council refuses to grant this, then the decision to refuse can be challenged by Judicial Review, with possession proceedings stopped until the challenge has been concluded.
Tenants need to seek expert legal help from solicitors who do housing and public law work. This should be done at the earliest opportunity. If people can’t locate any firms in Calderdale then look to Leeds firms with housing legal aid contracts for pure housing work and/or public law legal aid contracts for Judicial Review challenges. (Editor’s note: Here’s the link to the Ministry of Justice webpage where you can search for a local solicitor/law firm that does housing and public law legal aid work. On that webpage, select Filter by categories of law, and then tick Housing and Public Law.)
Stopping evictions on human rights grounds and in “best interests of the child”
Possession proceedings can be defended on grounds of personal circumstances – ie human rights grounds. This applies at any stage of proceedings, including after a possession order has been made. Eviction warrants can be defended but tenants need to actively apply to stop evictions, again by contacting solicitors with a housing legal aid contract.
Whilst some challenges have been brought against the bedroom tax and housing benefits cap, the opportunities for legal challenge are not closed. Part of the battle for justice is by legal challenge. There will be many people who can’t cope with this on their own. The answer is to help them – for example in locating solicitors who can assist and with making appointments and helping with form filling and so on.
It is wonderful that churches, food banks, and other charities help, but it is no good just sitting back whilst people go short of food and clothing, fall out with each other, and suffer the threat and reality of being made homeless. All too often children suffer in all this, and that is an important argument in legal challenges. “Best interests of the child” arguments have gained prominence in recent court judgments.