Hide and Seek with Justice – A Rant

(Updated 26/10/2017 – at the bottom)

Access to justice is one thing. Actually being able to find it another. This is the sorry, sad, truly pathetic tale of the fall out of the closure of Lambeth County Court. I’m sorry for length, but hell, it has been a long, painful trip.

In late 2015, the MoJ/HMCTS announced that Lambeth County Court was one of many the courts that it proposed to close. Following a ‘consultation’ (in which the MoJ based its travel time estimates on people driving their own cars, like all central London tenants do), the closure was confirmed on 11 February 2016. The court was to close in late July 2017

So, some 15 months to plan and organise the transfer of Lambeth County Court work then. Ample, surely? What, we all wondered, was going to happen to the court’s possession cases and, in particular, the possession lists? (Quite a few local not for profits and private legal aid firms take part in the Lambeth possession duty scheme. We worry about such things).

Well, the first proposal was that everything would go to Wandsworth CC. Which would be an epic trip by public transport. Then it turned out it would be too expensive to get Wandsworth in a state to cope with the load. And both Lambeth and Southwark councils and MPs made furious noises about the distance involved for both claimant and defendant.

Then the possession cases were to go to Camberwell Green Magistrates Court. But MoJ/HMCTS then decided to close that court too.

Limbo. For months. And months. Vague rumours of one of the Crown Courts in Southwark being used for the possession list came and went. A delusional suggestion of using Southwark Council premises as a pop up court room was circulated.

Closure loomed. I mean really loomed. A day before the court was due to close, it was announced it would remain open another month. Yes, really, a day before. Not even the staff knew.

And then, when the month was up? Well the court did close at the end of September 2017. Except that a letter went out to (some) court users at the very end of September 2017 saying that possession lists would still be heard at Lambeth County Court. There wouldn’t be any staff and it wouldn’t be open otherwise…


HMCTS letter 1

Otherwise, deal with Stratford Housing Centre, at a Magistrates Court in East London, or if urgent try Clerkenwell & Shoreditch County Court in, well, Clerkenwell, the other side of the river.

How on earth, we wondered, were possession defendants in person supposed to make sense of this? How would they know where to go? People were already getting documents with various different hearing venues. But, silly us, silly, naive us, it turned out that this was to be simplicity itself compared to what HMCTS had up their sleeves.

Next, we were told, the possession lists would be heard at Inner London Crown Court. When would that start? Well, HMCTS weren’t entirely sure, though some cases were already listed as being heard there. And then this is what the duty scheme people were told this last week (notes, not a letter).

Inner London Crown Court

Lambeth County Court will stay open as hearing centre until 24 November 2017. It is intended that after, that all rent arrears possession cases will be heard at Inner London Crown Court. Cases listed to be heard before 24 November at ILCC will now be heard at LCC. Notices of the change of venue will be sent out. Please note this part is up in the air, post 24 November, so you will receive documents saying go to ‘Hearing Venue A’ but this may change at short notice and we will need to send further amended notices.

It is highly recommended that you check the address on any court notice carefully.

New cases

New possession cases will be issued from Stratford. Anything under 30 mins will be heard at the hearing centre (be it LCC or Inner London). Anything over at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch.

Injunctions and applications to commit will be heard at Gee St. (Clerkenwell & Shoreditch)

Applications to suspend warrants

Applications to suspend warrants should be made at the Stratford Housing Centre but will be heard at LCC/ILCC.

The address is

Stratford Housing Centre
398-397 High Street
Stratford
London
E15 4SB

DX: 157553 Stratford, London (5)

Tel No: 020 8437 3520 (General)
Tel No: 020 8437 3515 (appointment Line) –

This is shown on Google Maps as Stratford Magistrates Court

If you go to Clerkenwell to issue, your application to suspend will be issued but may be heard at Clerkenwell.

Existing Lambeth cases

All existing Lambeth cases have automatically been transferred by HMCTS case management system to Clerkenwell. No formal notices of transfer will be sent out. Correspondence, applications, bills of costs etc should be sent to Clerkenwell. In any issue that requires the court user to return papers there will be a notice explaining where to send. (NB by NL, no letters have been sent to parties on existing Lambeth cases about this, not a single one).

In possession cases that are initially heard at Lambeth but become defended, Defences, Directions questionnaires etc. should be sent to Clerkenwell. They can be sent to Stratford but will be sent on to Clerkenwell.

Stratford will deal with all undefended possession matters and all possession matters that remain within 30 minute hearing timeframe. Anything heard at Stratford and subsequently transferred parties will be informed, thus, knowing where to send any further documents

Correspondence sent to LCC will be forwarded to Stratford.

Lists

The system will be that cases will be listed Tues -Fri, morning and afternoon, possession cases in the morning, warrants in the afternoon. The terms of the duty scheme oblige us to cover both sessions.

Hearing times

There is a big backlog of cases from Lambeth. Stratford are aiming to have any adjourned cased listed within 4 weeks ( unless the court directs a longer adjournment) and all orders/notice of hearing to be sent out within 10 working days.

Official Court name

The official court name is Clerkenwell and Shoreditch sitting at Lambeth County Court. The (INC) is just for PCOL to differentiate between the two C & S courts . The address is Stratford Housing Centre as above

I’m not inexperienced, but I’m still not sure I’ve quite made sense of this. What the hell a possession defendant in person is supposed to make of it, I have no idea.

They have to go to Stratford to apply for a stay of eviction? How are they supposed to know this? And then, somehow (stays usually being very, very, very urgent) that application will be heard at Inner London Crown Court, or maybe at Lambeth County Court (where there are no staff) but subject to last minute change of venue notices.

Defendants will be receiving short notice change of venue notices for possession hearings? No prospect of that going wrong. At all. No sir/ma’am, not a chance.

Could it possibly get worse? Why yes, yes it could. Courtesy of Cambridge House (@CamHouse1889 on twitter) is this redacted copy possession claim, presumably issued in Stratford, with named court as Clerkenwell & Shoreditch. But where is the possession hearing to be held?

possession claim

 

Why yes, it is at “County Court at Clerkenwell & Shoreditch (INC)”, but wait, the address is Sessions House, Newington Causeway. Which is Inner London Crown Court. How the hell is a defendant in person supposed to know what ‘Clerkenwell & Shoreditch (INC)’ is? What confusion will this spread? How many will turn up hopefully at Gee Street (where C&S CC actually is)? How many will turn up at Sessions House only to find ‘Inner London Crown Court’ and leave bewildered?

HMCTS are directing defendants to attend a court that doesn’t exist, even virtually. Of all the dark ironies of our failing court system, that might be one of the darkest yet.

I would laugh, I would. This astonishing saga of ineptitude, delay, panic and confusion would be a farce. Except it isn’t funny.

People will lose their homes because of this. Defendants will miss hearings and get possession orders which could have been avoided or suspended. Defendants will fail to be able to make stay of warrant applications which would have had prospects and be evicted in consequence. Claimants will face set aside applications on the basis of a wholly understandable failure to attend the possession hearing, and delay and costs as a result.

This is the sheer ineptitude of HMCTS messing with people’s lives. It is not just a failure of access to justice, it is bloody well hiding it away.

They had two years to sort this. Two whole bloody years.

Update 26/10/2017

Well. The day after this post was circulated, we received this (as I presume other Lambeth court users group people did).

HMCTS letter 2

So now ‘housing applications’ should be made at Stratford, but ‘urgent applications’ (like a stay) should be made at Clerkenwell & Shoreditch (the real one at Gee Street). How is this being explained to defendants in person?

At least some tenants have made stay applications at Clerkenwell, and were heard there. Heaven knows what has happened to those who made the epic trek to Stratford, assuming they got through to make an appointment (for a stay application!).

And today, the CEO of HMCTS (@CEOofHMCTS ) did comment on the Lambeth situation on twitter. (Better late than never. And read bottom to top).

CEO of HMCTS

But I’m not sure it really gets to grips with the issues. While it is nice that this is a learning opportunity for HMCTS, this is about people potentially losing their home because of ‘the confusion’ (which, I presume, we must read as a euphemism for the complete failure over 2 years to make adequate arrangements, changing the situation at a few days notice and the strange belief that Stratford is anywhere near Lambeth or Southwark).

 

About Giles Peaker

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts, and still is Nearly Legal on Google +.
Posted in Assured Shorthold tenancy, assured-tenancy, Housing law - All, Possession, secure-tenancy and tagged , .

12 Comments

  1. Excellent post, thank you. I share your pain. Was *Camberwell* and Shoreditch a typo or are you deliberately trolling us to add further confusion ;)

  2. This is an excellent post.
    But with respect (as they say), to some extent this is London, the one bit of the country usually regarded as the bit that matters, getting the treatment that has been meted out to people out in the sticks for a long time.
    I used to sit at Aylesbury County Court, and when there was talk of closing it some years ago I received some very supportive correspondence from the local MP. A Mr David Lidington. You may have heard of him. Of course, if you sit in London with a map book it looks quite straightforward to axe Aylesbury and send everyone to Milton Keynes. But try doing the journey on public transport.
    When I started in practice in Bedfordshire, there were magistrates’ courts in Bedford, Ampthill, Biggleswade and Dunstable as well as Luton. Now there is just Luton. If you are a defendant living in rural North Bedfordshire, try getting to Luton for a 10 am hearing.
    And don’t even get me started on the axing of counter services at the county courts. All in the name of giving a better service and being more efficient, you understand.
    God, I am glad I have retired.

  3. Interesting reporting – thank you Giles,
    These public sector closures and land sell-offs are worrying. We have just had two serviceable purpose-built medical rehabilitation units closed in Exmouth so they could be converted into … more housing. Each winter, as in every region, pressure on beds in our local hospitals becomes ‘critical’ bordering on crisis point, and these units could have provided much-needed relief on bed space to get bed-blocking patients out into the community. Seems to be very little ‘joined-up thinking’ across many areas of public sector governance. And sadly, there is also very little awareness or reporting of these poor decisions in the media.

    You don’t say why Lambeth Court was closed but money surely comes into it, and the potential returns available to the govt or LA to sell and redevelop the site. In this era of sky high property prices, I think we need greater (and probably statutory) protection on these public buildings so that they cannot just be sold off willy-nilly – generally for housing development. Even worse to think that in some cases, these sites are then sold to Russian or Chinese oligarchs with dodgy reputations.

  4. Surely this farce has now reached the stage where it is becoming unlawful. I certainly doesn’t sounds as if the PSED is at the forefront of their minds, it can’t have been. I imagine that it would be fairly easy to demonstrate that housing list defendants disproportionately share protected characteristics, that and its a clear breach of Article 6 in individual cases, as well as a breach of natural justice.

    Get yourself over to the Admin Court Giles! Interim relief with an order they atleast pick a bloody court and stick to it!!

  5. Lambeth County Court is a purpose built court, built in the 1930s. It is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and rented to the MOJ for £200 per annum. That is not a typo. It was also one of, if not the busiest, housing possession courts in the Country. This was pointed out to the MOJ before the decision to close it. The MOJ cannot sell the site because they don’t own it. The MOJ will not save any money from the court closure rather the decision to close the Court will cost the MOJ far more than it saves.

  6. I’ve been suffering from the closure of Bow in the summer. Originally all cases were supposed to go to Clerkenwell & Shoreditch but instead they opened a housing court in Stratford Magistrates but this month I have spoken to 2 tenants who received warrants without any pre knowledge because matters got lost between Bow, ,C&S and Stratford and this new system of calling a phone number just to make an appointment to hand the application form in is a farce, thats if you can even get through on the phone

  7. In response to a question from JC yesterday about UC, Theresa May said, “….and I want to be clear that nobody can be legally evicted from social housing because of short-term rent arrears.” Increasingly Housing Associations do seek possession on Ground 8, and courts have no discretion to adjourn Ground 8 claims because of welfare benefit delays. So, unless there is someting in the rent arrears protocol, TM has again overstated the rights of tenants.

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  10. Excellent post – It is the stuff of really dark comedy, although, to quote Jarvis Cocker “I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.”

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