Yes, it’s true, another review has been published, this time of the regulation and redress in the UK housing market. And yes, if you’re wondering, this was what the Law Commission did in their Issues paper on proportionate dispute resolution and further analysis. The author this time is Professor Colin Jones, whose biog does not suggest that he has ever been particularly interested, if at all, in this issue although that may be a little unfair. Actually, what he has done here is quite respectable to a point and worthy (in contrast to the disastrous Rugg and Rhodes report – for our review, see here).
Prof Jones has mapped out the complex, diverse accountability space (as the Law Commission put it) and – shock, horror – has demonstrated that: it is too complex; needs to improve its transparency and be universal; needs to have a single web gateway to complaints schemes; and certain elements of self-regulation need beefing up to be compatible with principles of natural justice (eg estate agents redress schemes). Most particularly – shock, horror again – he notes that lettings and management agencies have no, or insufficient, mechanisms for aggrieved occupiers to claim redress, and suggests that they should come within the provisions of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 (which was the derivation of this inquiry). None of this is startling or new, as implied, but he does map out the different schemes which currently operate against a set of “natural justice” criteria borrowed from the OFT and that is interesting because some schemes are found wanting against that set of criteria. He also seeks and claims to demonstrate from pretty rough and ready statistics levels of dissatisfaction primarily with estate agents, and the private rented sector.
He makes some strong criticisms of existing mechanisms, which are likely to chime with those experienced in these fields. eg
The complexities of regulation of private landlords mean that they can be subject to registration, licensing or accreditation schemes that can vary by location and status. Trhe result is that the meaning of these terms has become stretched and difficult for a housing professional, never mind a lay person, to comprehend the layer differences
But my favourite is this:
[The changing landscape of redress in the housing market] is likely to cause some confusion for customers although there is no evidence to demonstrate there is a problem. The system may not be a maze if you are in it but to the outsider looking in it seems unnecessarily complex with consequent fears of a lack of consumer confidence and opportunities for unscrupulous practice.
So that’s what’s good. But, it’s disappointing after all that work that the Law Commission did in developing criteria to judge dispute resolution mechanisms to find it written out (and not referred to). It’s also disappointing that sometimes in the crucial chapters on consumers’ views that Prof Jones often equates dissatisfaction with grievance. Those with a passing interest in the disputing literature are likely to shake their heads at this point.
But really, the basis for the assertion of high levels of dissatisfaction is, as Prof Jones accepts at one point (para 7.2), unclear. As this is so important in our consumer focused world, it is the most disappointing part of the report. So, for example, at para 7.11, he states that “the [Ombudsman for Estate Agents] statistics suggest that as relatively few make a formal complaint to the organisation either this is quite a low level unhappiness, perhaps niggling concerns, or there is a lack of awareness of consumer rights or a lack of confidence in the process”. The assertion is that there are high levels of dissatisfaction and low levels of complaint. The data sources for each are limited, and there is no discussion of the key issues – the transformation of grievance to dispute as well as the role of (and access to) professionals in that process. I don’t necessarily blame Prof Jones for this, but I do blame CLG and BERR who commissioned the report.