Vulnerable tenants could be evicted without help from a duty solicitor under county court plans to resume housing possession cases next month.
All housing possession proceedings were suspended in March for 90 days to protect private and social renters, and those with mortgages and licences covered by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
The suspension is due to be lifted on 25 June. Brentford County Court is looking at how ongoing and new cases could be heard from 29 June, consulting on proposals outlined in a letter seen by the Gazette.
The letter says most possession hearings are likely to take place remotely until autumn. The court’s ‘present thinking’ is that in the first instance, the court will arrange and conduct possession hearings by telephone or Skype. Cases will be listed at 30-minute intervals.
With parties and representatives not being physically present, court notices will ‘point out that there will almost certainly be no "duty solicitor" scheme in operation’. Defendants will be ‘more strongly’ encouraged to take early legal aid assistance.
The letter says: ‘It is currently our view that these proposed listing arrangements represent the least-worst way of dealing with these possession claims in present circumstances.
'We well understand that these cases have previously involved large numbers of mainly unrepresented defendants with limited means attending our court and, in some cases, meeting and reaching agreements with representatives of claimants in the court building. That cannot be accommodated during the current crisis. The parties will therefore be expected to engage with one another well before the hearing date to a much greater degree than previously.
‘However, our judges will be alert to ensure that, so far as possible, vulnerable tenants are not prejudiced by the new process and cases will be adjourned in advance (on application) or even on the day, where appropriate.’
Other London courts are believed to have issued similar letters.
Housing solicitor Sue James, of Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, questioned how defendants can be encouraged to take early legal aid assistance given the shortage of housing solicitors. ‘The duty solicitor is an essential component in achieving proper access to justice for those losing their home and assisting often some of the most vulnerable in our community,’ she said.
The letter states that any hearing that takes place is ultimately a matter for the judiciary. James said an agreed framework is needed.
She added: ‘The last thing we need right now are more evictions - taking away the duty solicitor will almost certainly mean that. Also, if remote, how does the court know the reason for the defendant not "turning up"? Clients facing possession proceedings often have welfare benefit problems which means they are on very low incomes. They may also lack computers to access the court remotely or to have data or credit on their phones. Remote hearings for duty possession cases are not workable.’