Nearly six months after housing possession proceedings were suspended, the moratorium comes to an end on Sunday. The coronavirus and social distancing requirements have required a rethink of how the courts will deal with cases – the results of which were published in an ‘overall arrangements’ document by the judiciary yesterday.
The document doesn’t mention a government-funded independent facilitated negotiation/mediation pilot, which featured in a version distributed earlier this week.
As far as I know the pilot hasn’t been shelved. Hours before the document was published, the government told me it is working with the judiciary on measures to support all parties when possession proceedings resume and is exploring the option of mediation.
When it comes to access to justice, government cash is always welcome. But Sue James, supervising solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, reckons the money would be better spent on resolving the real issue at the heart of most housing arrears cases – welfare benefits.
Ealing Law Centre, where James is a founding trustee, provides a court-based crisis navigator service (thanks to grant funding).
James recalls one case where she was on housing duty. The mother was a victim of domestic abuse and had got to the point where she could go back to work. She started working part-time, which affected her housing benefit. By the time James saw her in the court duty room, the mother had more than eight weeks’ rent arrears and the housing association was claiming ground 8 (a mandatory ground for possession).
Arguing proportionality, James persuaded the judge to grant an adjournment. The crisis navigator then helped the mother sort out her housing benefit. When she returned to court, she was in credit.
Without the crisis navigator, James would have had to try and get a Citizens Advice appointment. The issue might not have been resolved by the time the mother appeared before the judge again.
The government tells me details of how the independent facilitated negotiation/mediation pilot will operate are still being finalised. Based on what the earlier version of the ‘overall arrangements’ document said, landlords will have to agree to do it.
When possession proceedings resume, the courts will prioritise cases such as those involving allegations of anti-social behaviour. Will landlords be in the mood to mediate or negotiate? We don’t know. But we do know that housing possession cases can often be traced back to a housing benefit issue - the government should invest in crisis navigators who can help to resolve that.