Possession hearings & the closure of Lambeth County Court by Henry Brooke

Our court system is on its knees.   I tell this story because it is such an egregious example of rank bad planning.  But the villains of the piece are our politicians who believe that once the justice system has been scraped to the bone, no harm can be done to people’s lives by giving the well scraped bone another scrape or two.

Recently we learned that on present projections annual resource funding to the Ministry of Justice will have been cut by 40%, in money of today, during the 10-year period which ends in 2020.  In days of austerity, justice receives less protection than almost every other department of state.  Can this be right?

This is the story of the fate of one of the busiest housing courts in London.

I am indebted to Giles Peaker (who blogs as @nearlylegal) for much of the content of this blog.  I used to be instructed by his South London firm (Anthony Gold & Partners) again and again half a century ago when Mr Gold was in practice as a sole practitioner, and I know the area well.

15 years ago I was the senior judge involved with the court modernisation programme. I have written elsewhere about the disaster that hit our civil and family court system in July 2002 when the Treasury rejected our plans for digitising court processes. I continued to sit on the modernisation board for another two years, and I also represented the judiciary on a board that was concerned with rationalising the London court estate.

It was obvious at that time that some London county courts were past their useful sell-by date. Any replacement courts should be located close to good transport connections. And although a journey to court of up to one hour might be tolerable for trials (as had been proved with the innovative Central London Trial Centre experiment), justice must continue to be delivered locally for pre-trial hearings (if not conducted over the telephone) and for possession hearings.

If a tribunal building could not be used as a substitute, some appropriate public building in the vicinity of the former court would have to be found for occasional hearings. Unless a building had been designed as a combined court centre, we would have been very reluctant to permit criminal cases to be heard side by side with civil/ family cases. There was an unhappy precedent in, I think, Pembrokeshire which taught us to avoid that option.

One of these important principles was broken when HM Courts Service (now HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS)) replaced the former Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Courts, both of which I remember attending many years ago, with a new combined court at Gee Street, in Finsbury.  This new court was over a quarter of a mile from Barbican station (on the Circle/ Metropolitan Line) and even further from Old Street station (on the eastern branch of the Northern Line).  There are also some bus routes nearby, if one knows where to look for them.  It is not a journey to be enterprised lightly without a good, up to date map, particularly if you live in South London, from which Finsbury is virtually terra ignota.

The plan to close Lambeth County Court

Lambeth County Court, in Cleaver Square, Kennington, was another court I used to visit in the old days. Years of chronic under-investment in the maintenance of the court estate enabled the responsible minister to say last year:

“The building is in need of considerable maintenance, including the replacement of air conditioning, lighting and aspects of the heating and hot water system. In many respects, it is simply not fit for purpose as a modern and flexible court building.”

Because it was rented, there would be no sale proceeds available to HMCTS if the court was closed.

In February 2016, following a consultation process in which 54 out of 55 respondents opposed the court’s closure and the remaining respondent was neutral, the then Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, ruled that the court should be closed. Its workload and hearings should be moved to Wandsworth County Court, and possession hearings moved to Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court, two miles away.  Two Parliamentary debates, conducted in rapid succession, failed to stop this decision being made.

The decision, it is true, upheld the principle that possession hearings should be heard locally, although no attention seems to have been paid to the question whether it would be feasible to hear possession cases alongside crime.

Under pressure from a local MP, the London Borough of Southwark was asked to consider whether space might be available for possession hearings in one of their civic buildings. It decided, however, that this would not be feasible.  It is, of course, suffering its own pressures from the cuts.

So far, so good (more or less). However, it was then decided to close Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court as well, following a quite separate consultation process. The relevant announcement said, quite brusquely, that

“The housing possession work on which a move to Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court from Lambeth County Court had been planned in September 2017 will relocate into one of the Crown Courts within the London Borough of Southwark”.

No explanation was given as to why it was thought that this would be feasible, especially as the Crown Courts are involved with serious crime.

What happened (or didn’t happen) next was graphically described by Giles Peaker, a local housing solicitor, in a blog he publishes as @nearlylegal.  The documents he reproduces can be seen on his blogsite.

Hide and Seek with Justice – A Rant

By Giles Peaker | Published 24/10/2017

Access to justice is one thing. Actually being able to find it another. This is the sorry, sad, truly pathetic tale of the fall out of the closure of Lambeth County Court. I’m sorry for length, but hell, it has been a long, painful trip.

In late 2015, the MoJ/HMCTS announced that Lambeth County Court was one of many the courts that it proposed to close. Following a ‘consultation’ (in which the MoJ based its travel time estimates on people driving their own cars, like all central London tenants do), the closure was confirmed on 11 February 2016. The court was to close in late July 2017.

So, some 15 months to plan and organise the transfer of Lambeth County Court work then. Ample, surely? What, we all wondered, was going to happen to the court’s possession cases and, in particular, the possession lists? (Quite a few local not for profits and private legal aid firms take part in the Lambeth possession duty scheme. We worry about such things).

Well, the first proposal was that everything would go to Wandsworth CC. Which would be an epic trip by public transport. Then it turned out it would be too expensive to get Wandsworth in a state to cope with the load. And both Lambeth and Southwark councils and MPs made furious noises about the distance involved for both claimant and defendant.

Then the possession cases were to go to Camberwell Green Magistrates Court. But MoJ/HMCTS then decided to close that court too.

Limbo. For months. And months. Vague rumours of one of the Crown Courts in Southwark being used for the possession list came and went. A delusional suggestion of using Southwark Council premises as a pop up court room was circulated.

Closure loomed. I mean really loomed. A day before the court was due to close, it was announced it would remain open another month. Yes, really, a day before. Not even the staff knew.

And then, when the month was up? Well the court did close at the end of September 2017. Except that a letter went out to (some) court users at the very end of September 2017 saying that possession lists would still be heard at Lambeth County Court. There wouldn’t be any staff and it wouldn’t be open otherwise…

[After setting the text of the letter in full, he continues:]

Otherwise, deal with Stratford Housing Centre, at a Magistrates’ Court in East London, or if urgent try Clerkenwell & Shoreditch County Court in, well, Clerkenwell, the other side of the river.

How on earth, we wondered, were possession defendants in person supposed to make sense of this? How would they know where to go? People were already getting documents with various different hearing venues. But, silly us, silly, naive us, it turned out that this was to be simplicity itself compared to what HMCTS had up their sleeves.

Next, we were told, the possession lists would be heard at Inner London Crown Court. When would that start? Well, HMCTS weren’t entirely sure, though some cases were already listed as being heard there. And then this is what the duty scheme people were told this last week (notes, not a letter).

Inner London Crown Court

Lambeth County Court will stay open as hearing centre until 24 November 2017. It is intended that after, that all rent arrears possession cases will be heard at Inner London Crown Court. Cases listed to be heard before 24 November at ILCC will now be heard at LCC. Notices of the change of venue will be sent out. Please note this part is up in the air, post 24 November, so you will receive documents saying go to ‘Hearing Venue A’ but this may change at short notice and we will need to send further amended notices….

Existing Lambeth cases

All existing Lambeth cases have automatically been transferred by HMCTS case management system to Clerkenwell. No formal notices of transfer will be sent out. Correspondence, applications, bills of costs etc should be sent to Clerkenwell. In any issue that requires the court user to return papers there will be a notice explaining where to send.

(NB by NL, no letters have been sent to parties on existing Lambeth cases about this, not a single one).

In possession cases that are initially heard at Lambeth but become defended, Defences, Directions questionnaires etc. should be sent to Clerkenwell. They can be sent to Stratford but will be sent on to Clerkenwell.

Stratford will deal with all undefended possession matters and all possession matters that remain within 30 minute hearing timeframe. Anything heard at Stratford and subsequently transferred parties will be informed, thus, knowing where to send any further documents

Correspondence sent to LCC will be forwarded to Stratford.

Lists

The system will be that cases will be listed Tues -Fri, morning and afternoon, possession cases in the morning, warrants in the afternoon. The terms of the duty scheme oblige us to cover both sessions.

Hearing times

There is a big backlog of cases from Lambeth. Stratford are aiming to have any adjourned cased listed within 4 weeks (unless the court directs a longer adjournment) and all orders/notice of hearing to be sent out within 10 working days.

Official Court name

The official court name is Clerkenwell and Shoreditch sitting at Lambeth County Court. The (INC) is just for PCOL to differentiate between the two C & S courts. The address is Stratford Housing Centre as above.

I’m not inexperienced, but I’m still not sure I’ve quite made sense of this. What the hell a possession defendant in person is supposed to make of it, I have no idea.

They have to go to Stratford to apply for a stay of eviction? How are they supposed to know this? And then, somehow (stays usually being very, very, very urgent) that application will be heard at Inner London Crown Court, or maybe at Lambeth County Court (where there are no staff) but subject to last minute change of venue notices.

Defendants will be receiving short notice change of venue notices for possession hearings? No prospect of that going wrong. At all. No sir/ma’am, not a chance.

Could it possibly get worse? Why yes, yes it could. Courtesy of Cambridge House (@CamHouse1889 on twitter) is this redacted copy possession claim, presumably issued in Stratford, with named court as Clerkenwell & Shoreditch. But where is the possession hearing to be held?

[After reproducing this claim form, he continues:]

Why yes, it is at “County Court at Clerkenwell & Shoreditch (INC)”, but wait, the address is Sessions House, Newington Causeway. Which is Inner London Crown Court. How the hell is a defendant in person supposed to know what ‘Clerkenwell & Shoreditch (INC)’ is? What confusion will this spread? How many will turn up hopefully at Gee Street (where C&S CC actually is)? How many will turn up at Sessions House only to find ‘Inner London Crown Court’ and leave bewildered?

HMCTS are directing defendants to attend a court that doesn’t exist, even virtually. Of all the dark ironies of our failing court system, that might be one of the darkest yet.

I would laugh, I would. This astonishing saga of ineptitude, delay, panic and confusion would be a farce. Except it isn’t funny.

People will lose their homes because of this. Defendants will miss hearings and get possession orders which could have been avoided or suspended. Defendants will fail to be able to make stay of warrant applications which would have had prospects and be evicted in consequence. Claimants will face set aside applications on the basis of a wholly understandable failure to attend the possession hearing, and delay and costs as a result.

This is the sheer ineptitude of HMCTS messing with people’s lives. It is not just a failure of access to justice, it is bloody well hiding it away.

They had two years to sort this. Two whole bloody years.

Update 26/10/2017

Well. The day after this post was circulated, we received this (as I presume other Lambeth court users group people did).

[He reproduces the new letter]

So now ‘housing applications’ should be made at Stratford, but ‘urgent applications’ (like a stay) should be made at Clerkenwell & Shoreditch (the real one at Gee Street). How is this being explained to defendants in person?

At least some tenants have made stay applications at Clerkenwell, and were heard there. Heaven knows what has happened to those who made the epic trek to Stratford, assuming they got through to make an appointment (for a stay application!).

Up to date News

Some clarity recently emerged in the form of an undated letter from HMCTS’s London Regional Deputy Director:

“The closure of Lambeth County Court was announced in February 2016, but has since ben delayed while we found an appropriate alternative to hear housing possession cases. This has meant that since the closure was announced, plans for the proposed location for these cases has changed several times. I am sorry for the confusion caused by the changes to our plans and for the way in which we failed to adequately explain them to everyone affected.

My senior managers have worked with the Presiding Judges to review the suitability of Crown Courts within the London borough of Southwark, as these are the closest available courts to Lambeth. It has been agreed, however, that these courts cannot provide the appropriate degree of separation between potentially vulnerable users attending possession hearings and other court users. They have therefore reviewed another option within the London county court estate and have concluded that possession cases should be listed in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court.

[This] is a modern court with far better facilities than Lambeth and is within reasonable travel distance with good travel links. By public transport the journey time from Lambeth County Court to Barbican, the nearest underground station to Clerkenwell & Shoreditch takes an average 20 minutes. We are confident that this is the best option for court users.

As a result of this decision the last housing possession hearings will take place at Lambeth on 22 December 2017 and the court will then be closed. Possession hearings will be at Clerkenwell & Shoreditch from 8 January 2018. Urgent hearings between 2 December and 8 January will also be heard at Clerkenwell & Shoreditch.

We will ensure that anyone who may be in doubt where their case is to be heard gets a clear, unambiguous letter with a map, good advice on travel and contact details, to avoid any risk of confusion. I hope that this letter provides clarity about the future of these cases.

Some final thoughts of mine

It is certainly reasonable to say that an 8-minute journey from Kennington to Moorgate, coupled with a one-minute journey from Moorgate to Barbican, can reasonably be said to take an average of 20 minutes, when one allows for waiting for trains, walking through stations etc. But this does not allow for the walk from Lambeth County Court to Kennington station, and the walk the other end from Barbican to the court in Gee Street: more than a quarter of a mile in each case.

But this is only a tiny part of the picture. The correct analysis should be of journey times from someone’s home to the Gee Street Courthouse.  If you live close to a Northern Line station south of Kennington, then the journey will be only a little longer.  But in one of the Parliamentary debates. Helen Hayes MP, the indefatigable member for Dulwich and West Norwood, said that almost half the postcode areas covered by Lambeth County Court fell within her constituency, and this is nowhere near the Northern Line.[1]

The Cambridge House Law Centre, in Camberwell, speaks with expert local knowledge:

Under the proposed plans, court users will be expected to travel much further to attend and at considerable cost; for example, a person in South Norwood may have to travel to Old Street, a £10 return. A single person’s basic Universal Credit allowance is £79 per week; attending a hearing then could consume more than 10% of their weekly budget. The decision appears to be administratively driven and with little thought given to users of the court, especially those vulnerable clients most in need of accessible justice.

And no attention seems to be being paid to the convenience or other needs of the lawyers or other advisers who will certainly not be remunerated for the additional time spent in travelling from their office in the Lambeth County Court area to represent their clients in faraway Finsbury.

It is nowhere suggested that senior civil judges (whether the Head or Deputy Head of Civil Justice, or the Designated Civil Judge for London) were consulted.  If they were, I can well imagine what they would have to say. And as for the Supreme Court (fresh from its decision in the Unison case) when impleaded by a disabled resident of West Norwood for whom eviction from her home is imminent, unless she can get to court to resist it, watch this space…

[1] As I can recall from my days living as a tenant in a house in West Dulwich owned by Nicholas Phillips, a future President of the Supreme Court.

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