Confused vulnerable clients could become homeless because of confusion surrounding the decision to grant a London court a temporary stay of execution, solicitors have warned.
Lambeth County Court was due to close last week as part of the government's closure programme. Workload and hearings would move north of the Thames to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court.
Housing possession hearings were due to move to another venue in the same borough. However, HMCTS informed practitioners last week that Lambeth would stay open, but only as a hearing centre for housing possession cases. There will be no staff on site or counter facilities, an HMCTS notice states. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson has since told the Gazette that there will be full-time and contracted staff on site.
'Users must make contact with Stratford Housing Centre or, if urgent, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court. This is a temporary measure until details of an alternative venue are finalised,' the HMCTS notice states.
Angus King, a housing solicitor at Lambeth Law Centre, said the situation 'cannot be described as anything other than chaotic and is putting vulnerable clients at the risk of homelessness'.
Applications to suspend eviction warrants have to be made in Shoreditch. King said: 'To save their homes, clients without legal assistance - and most likely without funds - will have to travel halfway across London in situations of extreme urgency. Undoubtedly, many will fail to do so and consequently lose their homes.'
In recent possession cases that Miles & Partners solicitor Simon Marciniak has had at Lambeth, Marciniak said the judge has ordered the matter to be transferred to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court.
Marciniak, who is also chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, said: 'I'm presuming other practitioners have had the same experience. The news that possession cases will still be heard in the Cleaver Street building is a bit of a surprise and is going to lead to confusion, making it very difficult to advise particularly vulnerable defendants on where their cases are likely to be heard.'
According to King, Lambeth County Court is rented from the Duchy of Cornwall at a peppercorn rent of £200 per year on a lease that runs to 2024. Its closure will not bring significant savings and should be kept open if there is no capacity at other courts, he said.