A radical proposal by an influential human rights thinktank to resolve housing disputes - a sector blighted by 'advice deserts' - has divided housing lawyers.
Justice, which has been looking at fresh ways to resolve housing disputes, said its proposed Housing Disputes Service (HDS), unveiled in a report last week, was 'bold and ambitious'. However, prominent housing solicitor Sue James, of Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, described it on Twitter as 'worse than LASPO'.
The HDS would fuse elements of problem-solving, investigative, holistic and mediative models used elsewhere in the justice system.
Justice acknowledged that some of its own members did not accept the HDS, which was also opposed by lawyers acting for tenants. Its report contains a dissenting report by members of the Housing Law Practitioners Association.
The dissenting opinion describes the HDS as a 'fundamentally misconceived proposition which is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice'. The proposal is based on 'limited consultation' with practising lawyers. The dissenters question Justice's thinking on the role of lawyers. ‘If - as the report accepts - a lawyer is needed on the outskirts of the HDS, it is not logical to argue that a lawyer is not needed for the most important part of the process, namely proceedings within the HDS.'
Housing solicitor Vicky Fewkes, of Ealing Law Centre, told the Gazette that Justice's proposals 'fundamentally misunderstand the power imbalance between our clients and their landlords and are incredibly naïve. Frontline law centre lawyers were only consulted at the very last minute and we felt we could not sign up to this report. We are here to protect our clients' rights and I see nothing in these proposals that will help to protect the most vulnerable in society'.
The Law Society said the report recognises significant access to justice issues borne out by the prevalence of housing law deserts. However, Simon Davis, president, said: 'Significant change is required but proposals which are likely to have the effect of removing the right of the parties to legal representation must be treated with a great deal of caution.'
Andrew Arden QC, chair of Justice's working group, told an event unveiling the report that 'there is, in the dissent, no word at all about how their clients feel about being involved in this alien and alienating system'. He added that should the scheme be piloted, 'we will work hand in glove to evolve it, test it. Things may change, we may find it’s actually better with lawyers in'.
Judge Siobhan McGrath, president of the First-Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber), told the event that the HDS is controversial but that 'it is controversial because it is new but that is not a reason to reject it. It is something that needs to be tried.'
Justice’s proposal could be pushing at an open door: HM Courts & Tribunals Service had two observers on the working party. The government is currently dithering over a 2018 proposal to create a specialist housing court.