Mike Phipps reviews Jobs and homes: Stories of the law in lockdown, by David Renton, published by the Legal Action Group
For over a decade barrister David Renton has defended tenants against landlords seeking eviction, and workers against employers who have dismissed them. In the case of tenants, the aim is to prevent repossession. As for sacked workers, the most he is likely to secure is financial compensation.
“If there was no housing or employment law, the chances are that employers and landlords would impose contracts on workers and tenants which would make their lives unbearable,” writes Renton. The historical evidence for this is indisputable and it took great social movements to establish a degree of balance.
But even today, old habits persist – like the Holloway pub-owner the author had to deal with who never paid his workers. Illegal evictions too are increasingly common. Even in social housing, tenants face huge obstacles. Around half a million social housing tenants annually say that they have had to complain on more than ten occasions about disrepair in their properties before any work was done. Very few of these would have access to a specialised lawyer or legal redress.
Grenfell residents from 2013 onwards had been raising concerns about the risk of fire to their building, given the truly shoddy standard of work inside. But legal aid cuts prevented them from getting access to the law.
Around 3% of all government spending each year goes on the costs of accommodation, subsidising the rent of people whose wages are so low that they cannot afford to remain in their homes without help. But the tenant never sees this money, which goes straight to the landlord. “If you have sat at court, as I have, and read a universal credit payment note saying that the recipient will be paid £409.89 every month, to cover their food, bills and every other expense, while their landlord would be paid £2,595.68 for rent in the same period, it’s clear that the purpose of that benefit is no longer to protect the tenant but rather to subsidise the landlord and to sustain house prices generally.”
Research conducted by Britain’s 187 district councils estimated that before the lockdown, half a million private sector tenants were paying over half their income in rent.
If tenants were not already at a great disadvantage, the bedroom tax exposes them to more injustices, forcing council tenants to downsize when their children leave home, even when there is nowhere for them to move to.
This book is a year in the life of the author dealing with these issues under lockdown. It’s also a time of other challenges: a year when his father’s health declined, leading to his death, movingly recounted here.
What really makes this book a page-turner, however, are the accounts of cases that Renton has defended – the over-confidence of landlords’ barristers, the vulnerability of many of his clients, the sheer unpredictability of judges. With a chapter for each month of 2020, you get a vivid sense of the mounting Covid crisis – and increasingly how it impacts on the author’s work.
Some of these cases are truly sad. A man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder cries out at times in the night. Neighbours complain about the noise and the landlord obtains a court order banning him from his home, obliging him to sleep rough, while still paying the rent. After several months, he returns home just to pick up a bottle of his medication. He is spotted by a neighbour: the police arrest him. He returns to court – in an online hearing – with the landlord’s barrister demanding a six month prison sentence for breaching his order. The judge is adamant that the case is a straightforward breach of a court order, until Renton pretty much pleads with him to read the medical reports. At this point, the judge sees sense and allows the man to return home – a victory of sorts.
But “a week later, another case saw a young child being taken into care after a judge refused to grant an adjournment. The case was appealed to the Court of Appeal, who were baffled that a decision of such seriousness was made following a telephone appearance, in a case where the parties had less than a day’s warning of the hearing. The appeal judges blamed the decision on the exhaustion of the judge.”
A Civil Justice Council report into online court hearings found a system in which the most basic forms of legal advice were barely functioning. Nearly half of all hearings suffered technical problems. Another report by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory “described litigants trying to engage with court hearings from mobile sheds or from the side of the motorway on pay-as-you-go mobile phones, witnesses coaching each other through their evidence, a mentally ill parent who was ‘screaming constantly’ as the hearing went on.” Such hearings also limit the opportunity for clients to instruct their barrister mid-hearing to WhatsApp chats.
The ongoing move to online courts raises other concerns. A study examining 1.7 million social security appeals between 2000 and 2015 found that 48% succeeded when the litigants appeared before the tribunal and were seen in the flesh. This proportion fell to just 15% when appeals were conducted on paper alone. The move to online courts also goes hand in hand with the privatisation of court buildings.
By the time the second lockdown kicked in during the autumn, employers were not only threatening largescale redundancies but ripping up procedures as to how they should be done. Meanwhile the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculated that by mid-November 2020 rent arrears across the UK had reached £400 million.
Looking ahead, up to a million people in Britain are at imminent risk of losing their home, through a combination of pre-Covid changes to the benefits rules, the downturn in economic activity associated with lockdown, and inertia by the government. Ministers have refused to amend the law, instead implementing only a series of emergency breaks, each of which has deferred the crisis without addressing the underlying problem of tenant debt. Homeowners, on the other hand, got far greater protection, with the Chancellor announcing a three-month mortgage holiday.
Nothing on that scale was granted to tenants. Only after mounting pressure did the government grudgingly concede a three-month stay on all possession proceedings – an issue raised by Jeremy Corbyn MP in his final Prime Minister’s Questions.
Losing one’s job in the pandemic is a disaster and imperils one’s home as well. The government’s advice to unemployed workers is to claim for universal credit. One client logged on to the online application process only to be told there were 138,000 people ahead of her in the queue.
Renton has some straightforward solutions – a pay rise for those who cannot afford to live; abolish the compulsion on the courts to evict in some cases – specifically “ground 8” where the tenant is in eight weeks of rent arrears, and ”section 21”, which forces a court to order a repossession if the landlord has complied with certain procedural requirements; a rent arrears amnesty.
He even sent these ideas to the new Labour leadership and spoke by video link to the shadow housing minister, who unfortunately seemed more concerned about the plight of homeowners. Meanwhile, his advice to workers and renters on the sharp end is: link yourself to networks of specialist advice, participate in them, and increase the collective potential of your voice. In short, join a union.
Unlike many of the books I get to review, the engaging quality of the writing alone, leaving aside the humane and sympathetic treatment of the material, made Jobs and Homes a pleasure to read – and undoubtedly one of the best books of 2021 so far.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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