An influential body led by the master of the rolls has said it cannot support government plans for a specialist housing court. The Civil Justice Council, which is led by Sir Terence Etherton, said money would be better spent elsewhere rather than on a court designed to provide a single path of redress for landlords and tenants.
In its response to the government’s consultation, the CJC said whatever delays currently exist are due to a lack of resources in the court system and a lack of bailiffs, rather than any lack of knowledge among judges or the courts they sit in.
If there was a need for judges to be more specialist, the response said, this could be resolved by a system of ‘ticketing’ judges to deal with housing issues, as happens in family cases.
‘The CJC would not support a major redesign of and/or transfer of cases within the courts and tribunal services for housing cases at this time,’ said the response.
‘This is particularly so at a time when the court reform programme and the increasing digitalisation of procedures within the courts and tribunal service is yet to be completed or evaluated.’
The CJC said delays that may occur appear in part to be caused by landlords’ and agents’ errors and lack of knowledge of the technical requirements when granting assured shorthold tenancies. These requirements would be the same whether a case was held in the county court or a newly-created housing court.
The CJC said landlords could not complain about tenants obtaining legal advice and delaying the process by defending claims. Responding to the suggestion of reducing the number of lawyers involved, the response said the court procedure must give tenants the opportunity to obtain advice.
‘In many of the claims for possession in which a landlord relies on a statutory ground, it is often the absence of available legal advice and support [which] contributes delay,’ said the response. ‘Courts often adjourn cases involving arrears of rent for benefit problems to be resolved but if the tenant is unable to obtain assistance to resolve the benefit issues the case may return weeks later with no progress having been made.
The CJC added that many housing cases often involve complex technical arguments on the law of contract, tort, equity and public law, and these were best heard in a mainstream civil court.
Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives has told the government its plans may benefit litigants, but only if the court is adequately resourced with specialist judges.
Its response said: ‘Whilst an integrated housing court shall help in creating a simplified framework that is easier for consumers to understand and navigate, obtaining prompt judgments and securing enforcement of case outcomes will not be possible without sufficient court staff and resources.’
Launching the call for evidence last year, communities secretary James Brokenshire said the proposals would help tenants and landlords access justice when they need it and create a fair housing market.