A year after the structural change was proposed at the Conservative Party Conference by then Housing Minister, Sajid Javid, the government last month released a Call for Evidence on the merits of creating a new specialist Housing Court.
Such a court would aim to improve access to justice for the most vulnerable tenants, by preventing cases from being heard in multiple courts and tribunals, thereby simplifying the process of seeking redress.
The Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire MP, released a statement:
“Everyone deserves to live in a safe and decent home, and this government is bringing about real change in making renting more secure. This is particularly important for families and vulnerable tenants who live with the fear of suddenly being forced to move, or fear eviction if they complain about problems with their home. It is also important for landlords who, in a minority of cases, struggle to get their property back when they have reason to do so.
“The proposals…will help ensure both tenants and landlords can access justice when they need it – creating a fair housing market that works for everyone.”
The current system for resolution of housing disputes involves multiple courts, and the housing charity Shelter has said that it is “often seen as too costly and complex to even consider taking a case to court.”While a range of housing and property disputes are presently dealt with in the First-Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber), housing disrepair claims and possession cases are heard in the county court. Meanwhile, Citizens Advice has proposed new methods for resolving housing disputes, in a paper published last year entitled “It’s broke, let’s fix it”. Their proposals include Alternative Dispute Resolution as a complement to court.
The concept of a specialist Housing Court is not a new one, and the Law Commission has periodically raised it. Housing Courts are also common in the US and other foreign countries.
However, there are fears that a new Housing Court would sideline solicitors, and that tenants might be left to handle cases which are too complicated for those without legal training. This would create the opposite effect of enabling access to justice, as tenants would be put at a further disadvantage.
Shelter responded to Mr Javid’s initial proposal earlier this year:
“Given the barriers that tenants face in taking a case to court, and the lack of confidence that landlords have in the system, there is undoubtedly a case for exploring court reform. But determining what any reform should look like will require significant further work and consultation.
“In the complex world of housing law, access to free legal advice is vital for helping people to prevent and resolve housing issues.”
In its Call for Evidence, the government acknowledged that concerns have been raised that “the current processes for making complaints or seeking redress for housing problems are confusing and fragmented.” The government published a consultation on strengthening consumer redress in the housing market in February of this year and will release its response soon. It is clear that, regardless of whether or not the proposal for a Housing Court is accepted, reform of the current housing dispute system is necessary.
The Call for Evidence closes on the 22nd of January.
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