Housing Law in Unprecedented Times
Nick Mason | 21st January, 2021
Starting work as a Trainee Housing Legal Aid Caseworker in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic has, at times, felt like learning to run before I could walk. Whilst I had some experience of managing disrepair cases, I had never worked under Legal Aid, dealt with homelessness applications, or defended a possession or evictions case. Coupled with the rapidly changing landscape of coronavirus regulations, guidance and practical effects, the legal landscape I have entered is even more of a tangled web than usual.
The effects of the pandemic, however, have only demonstrated why the vital work done by the housing team is so important. A moratorium on most forms of eviction may be in place, but possession proceedings continue to progress, leaving many in a limbo, their only safety net at risk of not being extended the moment the government decides to permit the execution of warrants. Houses still fall into disrepair, this time with residents trapped in them almost every waking moment and with local authorities reluctant to conduct inspections – a necessary step in protecting residents from revenge evictions. Rough sleepers continue to be left on the streets of Suffolk, with the government obfuscating in their approach to ‘Everyone In’, a scheme which could have fundamentally changed our approach to homelessness as a country. The Lancet published a study suggesting that this scheme saved 266 lives, with national newspapers such as The Guardian sharing the stories of those able to turn their life around simply by having a roof over their heads.
Giving legal advice has enabled me to offer a lifeline to a number of people. Sometimes this has meant being little more than providing a quick bit of guidance, other times I have undertaken substantial casework, from challenging local authorities on homelessness decisions to pressuring landlords to conduct essential repair work. Too often, people are unaware of the support available to them, whether that is because they live in a damp and overcrowded home and do not know that this means they could be considered homeless, or because they are too frightened of their landlords to seek help. Knowing that, sometimes, a single letter or telephone call can be the difference between homelessness and security, or squalor and comfort, has given me a conviction and drive that goes beyond simply working as part of my job.
As we move into another year of uncertainty, Suffolk Law Centre’s housing team has expanded, but so has the need for our services. A third lockdown has amplified the existing issues seen in housing law. But 2021 also shows the potential for meaningful reform. Section 21 repeal remains on the table, offering to muzzle the grossly inequitable power of eviction landlords hold over their tenants. Planning how to tackle all forms of poverty and disadvantage has become a central component of public discourse, with the remarkable work of Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe in recent weeks leading the way and showing that there are still people willing to fight for justice for all. Legal Aid remains an invaluable tool to that effect and it has enabled all of us at Suffolk Law Centre to be an essential part of that fight.
AGMs in the Wake of 2020
Georgia-Mae Chung | 5th January, 2021
This year has been a strange and uncertain one. The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world in unprecedented circumstances. There is not a single person who has not felt its influence in some shape or form. However, what this ordeal has really served to do is to make the disparities in our society even more stark. The chasm between different socio-economic groups has widened due to the apparent disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on certain individuals.
The impact of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent widespread resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has also been a key feature of this year. This has highlighted that, internationally, there is still a long way to go in tackling racism.
Add to this the lack of clarity that has been created and continued to develop due to there being a threat of a no deal Brexit in 2020 and it became a year that many would want to forget. But it has also become undeniably clear that the work of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (“ISCRE”) and Suffolk Law Centre (“SLC”) has never been more crucial.
It is in this context that the ISCRE and SLC AGMs occurred in December and it was an unavoidable of the pandemic that the format of the meetings had to be a bit different that year. Thus, they took place in a remote format over Zoom for the first time. The result was a lively and uplifting evening with impassioned speeches from Hamil Clarke, in his capacity as chair, Phanuel Mutumburi, and Audrey Ludwig. This was supplemented by positive reports on the financial accounts of the organisations by Jeremy Lea, the appointment of an auditor, and the election of trustees.
It was a great experience to see the continuation of the determined spirit that is at the heart of both ISCRE and SLC. We can all be confident that, moving into the new year, both organisations will continue to thrive.
Two Months in the Life of a Legal Intern/Paralegal
Tomasz Sikora-Pouivet | 17th December, 2020
My name is Tomasz Sikora-Pouivet, and I am a paralegal and legal intern at the Suffolk Law Centre. I have started in September of this year, supporting SLC with reception work as well as casework in the housing and “Tackling Discrimination in the East clinics”.
The months of November and December saw me assisting teams on a variety of projects.
• I assisted our Office Manager in the organisation of this year’s ISCRE and Suffolk Law Centre AGMs, notably investigating the practicalities of holding the AGMs remotely, as a response to the COVID-19 social distancing measures.
• I drafted template letter to clients for the Housing clinic, to be used to inform clients of the outcome of their court hearings.
• I helped the discrimination team on two different cases, one involving disability discrimination and another concerning discrimination in employment.
• Last but not by any means least, I helped our legal triage officer input all new enquiries into case management system and compiled an updated signposting list.
Building a new Suffolk Law Centre on a hot day in July
Jo Chimes | 26th July, 2017
When I recall that warm sultry July day, I don’t want to remember it because we held the inaugural meeting of the Advisory Panel for the Suffolk Law Centre Steering Group. Yes, it was a fabulous meeting full of ideas, and enthusiastic, wise people, uniting to offer their support and expertise to create a new Law Centre for people in Suffolk. Yes, we were delighted that our meeting brought together local solicitors, academics and representatives from local advice agencies, all supporting us to build the new Suffolk Law Centre.
What I do want to remember is something that happened earlier that day. I want to remember the calm and patient help given by one of my colleagues to a client who was quietly sobbing for ten minutes in our reception area. My colleague listened to her, reassured her, and helped her to get the advice she needed.
So, even though I was delighted that our first meeting was crowded, energetic and positive, and I will remember it, I want to make sure that it is our clients, and the vital help we can give them, that I remember most. Helping people get access to advice and justice is the reason we are working hard to create the new Suffolk Law Centre.
Suffolk is an advice desert. We are one of the few counties with no local housing legal aid lawyer. One of the core aims of our new Suffolk Law Centre is to provide advice in areas where there is no advice currently available. We will bid for legal aid contracts to give advice to more people with housing and immigration problems.
Suffolk has hidden areas of deprivation and poor infrastructure. This has created a uniquely difficult challenge for those concerned about access to justice in Suffolk, and it is one that Ipswich and Suffolk Racial Equality Council (ISCRE) has been keen to take on.
When we launch Suffolk Law Centre, it will be a subsidiary of ISCRE, which has been a strong community voice for 40 years. We want to build on and complement the work of ISCRE, which will continue. The legal services offered by ISCRE for over 10 years already includes a thriving LawWorks Advice Clinic, with over 70 Suffolk lawyers providing pro bono advice.
Our new Suffolk Law Centre Steering Group, has been given a development grant from the Legal Education Foundation to launch a new Suffolk Law Centre. We are going to have to raise more than that. We have set ourselves an ambitious target launch date of 1st December 2017. This year alone we’re looking to raise £40k at a minimum. It’s going to be an ongoing process of fundraising, and we are hoping to run a crowdfunding campaign in September and October. Our new Law Centre will focus on providing specialist legal advice, casework and representation, and promoting awareness of rights. We need additional funding beyond legal aid to make sure we can recruit the best lawyers to Suffolk, lawyers who are strongly committed to access to justice. We want to be innovative in the way we provide our services, so that we can help people across the towns and villages of Suffolk.
We know that our brilliant Advisory Panel will help us to meet these unique Suffolk challenges, with innovation and a fierce commitment. Building Suffolk Law Centre will mean a lot of hard work, but we know it will be worth it to help many more people in Suffolk get the access to justice they need, and to help all our clients at the times when they need it most. And that is what I will remember about that hot July day.