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By J
17/02/2010

Perhaps you should get a move on?

R (Joseph) v LB Newham [2009] EWHC 2983 (Admin)

We noted the permission decision in this case back in September 2009 when I expressed the view that, if Newham lost this case then some fish-based humiliation was due to them. Well, the claim for judicial review has now been allowed and I stand by my view. A woeful display by LB Newham, I think you’ll all agree.

Mr Joseph was the secure tenant of LB Newham in a one-bed property and had been since 1992. The property was now severely overcrowded, as he lived there with his wife and two children. Under the terms of the allocation scheme, he was entitled to a two-bed property. However, Newham reduced his priority (s.167(2A), HA 1996) on account of an alleged overpayment of HB (which had not been repaid) from 1998/1999.

Mr Joseph had made quite clear that he disputed this debt (albeit it hadn’t properly tried to appeal the 1998/1998 determinations) but Newham – remarkably – hadn’t tried to take any steps to enforce their alleged right to recover this money. They had just held the debt over his head, like the Sword of Damocles, presumably hoping that the debt would get paid if Mr Joseph ever wanted to transfer.

Mr Joseph (acting in person) sought judicial review of the decision. His primary case appears to have been that the debt was now statute barred. Whilst s.75, Social Security Administration Act 1992 did empower the authority to recover overpayments, it was required to do so within 6 years of the cause of action accruing by virtue of s.9, Limitation Act 1980. It was unlawful and irrational to take statute-barred debts into account.

Newham don’t actually appear to have addressed the issue of why they didn’t take any enforcement action against Mr Joseph. They just appear to have bleated on about the unfairness of the situation and that a strict limitation period would encourage tenants to withhold their debts and wait for them to become barred.

HHJ Thornton QC was having none of it. The debts were indeed statute barred and it was irrational, unlawful and contrary to Mr Joseph’s legitimate expectations to take statute-barred debts into account. Claim allowed and a declaration granted that:

“it is unlawful for Newham to apply its property-related debt policy when operating its choice-based housing allocation scheme to debts created by the requirement to repay overpaid housing benefit where those debts are irrecoverable by virtue of section 9 of the Limitation Act 1980…”

I suspect that I probably do more work for authorities than most of the NL team but I am amazed that Newham ever let this case get to court. Why on earth would you fight this case over under £900, in circumstances where you’ve done nothing to recover the money since 1999? I can only presume that Newham must have thousands of pounds of old debts owing and thought this was an important case to fight but, having lost the case, it’s now just exposed the flaw in its position to all those people who it claims owe it money.

Congratulations to Mr Jospeh. A well-deserved and just victory. Newham – hang your head in shame. A very unattractive way to deal with your alleged debts got exactly what it deserved.

J is a barrister. He considers housing law to be the single greatest kind of law known to humankind and finds it very odd that so few people share this view.

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