Judges would be wrong to think homeless applicants can draft grounds of appeal without legal representation, the Court of Appeal has said, in a judgment that provides significant guidance for courts and housing lawyers when proceedings are issued out of time.
Al Ahmed v The Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets concerned the approach courts should adopt when assessing a 'good reason' for delay in bringing an appeal under section 204 of the Housing Act 1996 against an adverse review decision under the homelessness provisions of the act.
The council decided that Al Ahmed was not a priority need and notified him on 4 or 6 April 2018. Al Ahmed had 21 days to appeal. He lodged an appeal on 25 May 2018. His Honour Judge Hellman, in the county court at central London, granted permission to appeal out of time. The council successfully appealed in the High Court, where Mr Justice Dove was satisfied that it was within Al Ahmed's capabilities to do what was necessary to bring the appeal and get it started. Al Ahmed, represented by north London firm Tyrer Roxburgh, appealed to the Court of Appeal.
Homelessness charity Shelter, represented by magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, intervened in the Court of Appeal case. Handing down the Court of Appeal's judgment yesterday, Sir Stephen Richards said the charity's evidence presented a 'bleak picture of the difficulties faced by homelessness applicants' in bringing an appeal under the act without legal advice and representation, and of the difficulties they may face finding a legal aid practitioner.
Richards said the 21-day time limit remains the basic rule. However, 'where an applicant relies on the fact that he was unrepresented and was seeking legal aid as a reason for non-compliance, the circumstances will need to be examined with care, including scrutiny of the diligence with which he acted in seeking legal aid. And even if the court is satisfied as to good reason, that simply opens up a discretion to give permission for an appeal to be brought out of time'.
Richards said there was no proper basis for Dove, who heard the case in the High Court, to interfere with the county court's decision. 'I think it right to add that if and in so far as Dove J was basing himself on a wider proposition that homelessness applicants are able as a general rule to draft a notice of appeal and adequate grounds of appeal without legal representation... such a proposition is in my judgment mistaken. It is not supported by the evidence before Judge Hellman and it is contradicted by the evidence placed before this court by Shelter.'
Richards allowed the appeal and reinstated Hellman's order. Lord Justice Phillips and Lord Justice David Richards agreed.