Astonishingly, Nearly Legal is at its 14th birthday. The blog started in June 2006. That is 14 years I’ve spent on this site, man woman and child. Forgive me if in these fevered and increasingly hallucinatory times, I have a bit of a self indulgent reflection on what has happened over those years.
When I began, in 2006, things were very, very different. I was a (late onset) paralegal, LASPO was something that none of us could imagine coming, and legal blogs were few and far between. Doing such a novelty as a blog was, within legal circles, regarded as a reckless and unprecedented action. The general view was that this internet thing was dangerous, and offering opinions yet more so, (those were the days when fax was still widely used amongst lawyers, if no-one else). So, being both a paralegal and a ‘blogger’, I kept myself anonymous, just in case.
My inspiration was obviously the Legal Action magazine ‘Recent Developments in Housing Law’ – at that point run by Jan Luba QC (as was) and HHJ Nic Madge. As judgments were beginning to appear on Bailii, why, I thought, couldn’t significant case law be noted and commented on immediately, rather than at the two month or more remove of print? What is more, having fallen into housing law, I found it fascinating, so wanted to note and comment on cases.
I was surprised how quickly and widely the site was picked up in housing law circles. By 2007/8 I was present at a number of gatherings where there was speculation about who was behind NL. Unsurprisingly, at that point, nobody thought it was me. I was a trainee solicitor at that stage, albeit one with a grey streak of hair.
It wasn’t until 2008 when I had qualified that I felt confident enough to come out as the person behind NL. On the basis that it would then be harder to get rid of me, and that the site already had a certain reputation in housing law circles. (I must give credit to my head of department and my firm, who have stood firmly behind the site from that point onwards – understanding that it was distinct from the firm and had its own identity. That was and is generous of them.)
Other people came on board in 2008 and after, mostly pseudonymous, which is their choice entirely, but known to me as expert housing barristers and solicitors. Heaven knows their input was welcome. There seemed to be a lot of new housing cases to report…
(I must also again thank Tessa Shepperson of Landlord Law who, at a time when I was looking for new site hosting due to the increased traffic, offered free hosting to NL with her web hosts. This was very generous and has meant that NL’s only costs are for the email service and domain name renewal. Tessa is a big part of why Nearly Legal can continue as free and without advertising).
And since then? Well, it is has been quite a ride. Since May 2007, there have been 5,214,313 visits to the site. Over 5 million! Since 2013, the average has been over half a million visits a year, The email subscription list has grown to some 7,900 people. 21,900 followers on Twitter. When it comes down to it, it seems anyone involved in housing law now reads the blog. Lawyers, case workers, housing officers, civil servants, Judges. This is astonishing.
But it has also now got a large lay audience, and a lot of people arrive through web searches for particular issues. I think this is important. Although we have, by and large, written as lawyers and with a legal audience in mind, there is public legal education facet to all this. The way the law works should be something that anyone can find out, and all too often isn’t. The section 21 flow chart and Relationship Breakdown FAQ are a further attempt at making complex information more accessible.
I think – I hope – that we are trustworthy. We give our opinions (which in my case often turn out to be wrong on appeal), and advocate for things, but this is distinct from our reporting and clearly flagged as such. Trust is important, and I hope we are clear about the distinction between reporting and opinion.
Over the last couple of months, of course, getting urgent information out as quickly as possible has also been important, and we’ve done our best to do that. Time is rapidly running out for the next urgent measures to be announced… And the sheer fragility of our present housing system, as exposed by the Coronavirus crisis, is likely to be something that underlies much housing law work in the future.
From something that I started writing because I was interested in housing law (and have kept writing because I still am), it has directly or indirectly led to many things – TV and radio appearances, a lot of newspaper writing and quotes, (and in one somewhat terrifying instance, being asked to write for the District Judges Bulletin on common housing law mistakes made by DJs), a number of very interesting cases, giving evidence to House of Commons Select Committees, involvement with MPs, policy makers and consultations.
And of course it led, if indirectly, to Justin Bates and I working with Karen Buck MP over the four years it took to get the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act onto the statute books and into force.
I am not at all sure that any of that would have come about without Nearly Legal. While I do rather hope to get more things done in the future, if I’m honest that is a legacy for a housing law blog that I’m fairly proud of.
I think the lesson to draw from that is that one or a few interested people, if willing to keep at what they are doing over an extended period, can actually have a wide impact and in wholly unanticipated ways. (If you had told any of us in 2008 that Nearly Legal would end up resulting in new statute, we would have mocked you).
But I think the thing that has kept NL going – and there have been tricky patches, and points where enthusiasm was lacking due to time and personal pressures – is the sense of community that grew with it. Readers, commenters, questions, debates, people sending in interesting cases to report, all helped to build a sense that there were a lot of people who took housing law seriously and that Nearly Legal was serving to bring them together. I have made a lot of friendships along the line. These things are important – as we now know more than ever.