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Category Archives: UK Law

‘Inaccurate and misleading’: Judge rejects Legal Aid Agency’s attack on eviction advice service

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A High Court judge has delivered a devastating crtitique of the UK Legal Aid Agency over its moves to change the way people facing eviction or repossession of their homes receive legal help. A crucial part of his argument for the change was based on a claim that was “both inaccurate and misleading” – or, as will be seen (and thankfully this blogpost can be less circumspect in its language), what is commonly known as “untrue”. The LAA had claimed two lawyers organisations backed the changes. In fact they had not been asked for their view.

The arguments of the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency used to justify the change were “based on assumption or conjecture or, at most, ‘anecdotal’ evidence from a handful of un-named providers [of the legal services]”, said Mrs Justice Andrews, hearing a judicial review application brought by the Law Centres Network (pdf) in the High Court.

The matter at issue was the Housing Possession Court Duty (HPCD) schemes that seek to ensure on-the-day legal advice and representation for people in court facing repossession and eviction. They are largely funded by legal aid to the tune of £3.6m a year – 0.2% of the legal aid total – and in many cases not-for-profit organisations, including local law centres, have the contracts to do the work.

Around 2014 the Legal Aid Agency suggested the schemes should be subject to price competition for the first time and re-tendered in a more consolidated form – ie a reduced number of schemes covering wider areas rather than focused on local courts. (At around this time there were were 117 HPCD schemes covering 167 courts; this was to be reduced to less than 50).

The argument was that some providers had withdrawn from offering schemes for economic reasons and  the change would promote “sustainability” (that weasel word meaning anything and nothing). But Andrews found no evidence for either contention. Read the rest of this entry

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How Labour opened hostilities against the Windrush generation

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“Gloria Fletcher wouldn’t have lost her job as a consequence of anything a Labour government did.” How wrong Labour MP Jack Dromey was when he made this confident statement on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour (at 38 mins) about one of the victims of the Windrush scandal. He was seeking to distinguish his party from the UK Conservative government that put in place the “hostile environment” against immigrants — with appalling effects on the Windrush generation in particular.

But it looks as if Dromey was wrong when he claimed that Gloria Fletcher, sacked after 36 years’ working in the same job in Britain, would never have fallen foul of Labour immigration policy. In fact she seems to have been the victim to Labour’s own legislation, passed as far back as 2006, to institute a “hostile environment” in order to drive out illegal immigrants from employment.

Labour’s 2006 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act at Section 15 says:

(1) It is contrary to this section to employ an adult subject to immigration  control if [broadly, s/he is an immigrant without leave to remain].

(3) An employer is excused from paying a penalty [for employing such a person] if he shows that he complied with any prescribed requirements in relation to the employment.

It turns out that, to avoid a penalty of up to £10,000 for, even unknowingly, employing a person without a legal right to be in Britain, the employer must have checked his/her documentation — a passport, for example, or any other relevant immigration document. This is what Mrs Fletcher had to show her new employer (after her firm was taken over). And since she had been in the country perfectly legally for 50 years without needing a passport or other document to stay, she could not produce the required proof.

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Citiscape cladding case at the Property Tribunal: report

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Note: The Tribunal has now [March 2018] ruled against the leaseholders; report here.

The first battle in the tortuous struggle over who pays what for post-Grenfell tower block cladding has shown how complex this issue is going to be – but also offered some clues as to how the battle lines will be drawn up. One of the leaseholders of the Citiscape blocks in Croydon, south London, made a compelling submission to the Property Tribunal in London to explain why leaseholders should not have to pay for replacing allegedly dangerous cladding.

New government regulations require blocks to be stripped of cladding of the sort assumed to have been the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in Kensington, west London, last year.

The issue of who pays will come down, not to who has the most money – freeholders or leaseholders – nor to the “moral case” according to Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Housing (that “the tab should be picked up by the freeholders of those properties”). It will come down to interpretation of the leases between freeholders, who own the land (and hence are paid annual ground rents), and leaseholders who have bought flats in the blocks up and down the country (and hence have to pay the annual service charges for work on the buildings and administration).

The flats are bought on leasehold which means they revert back to the freeholder after a term of years – in the Citiscape case 999 years in total (they were built in 2004). This period is deemed “almost freehold” (ie almost as if the leaseholders owned outright), and that fact may have a bearing on the eventual outcome of the case. Note also that not all leases are the same, so the Citiscape case may give clues for other cases (of which there are likely to be many) but won’t be a precedent.

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The Karen Buck Bill: Has the Government got developers off the hook?

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Has the UK Government done a devious deal to protect its favoured business interests among property developers and construction firms from a post-Grenfell crackdown on dangerous homes? Suspicious minds might think so.

After some years of prevarication and filibustering by the Tories, the Government has agreed to back a Private Member’s Bill from Labour MP Karen Buck requiring homes to be “fit for human habitation”. With one proviso: a single simple clause that would do most to help people living in potential Grenfell Towers – catastrophically dangerous homes – has been removed.

In its original form the Buck bill included a provision that would have had a huge and positive benefit: simply to bring into effect a piece of legislation that is already on the statute books and has been sitting there for more than 30 years.

If it were implemented by the Government,  Section 38 of the Building Act 1984 would make it much easier for tenants to sue for breaches in building regulations – the very issue that (it is alleged by some) may have led to the disaster at Grenfell Tower with 71 people killed by the fire.

The Government seems to have headed off Karen Buck’s calls for reform by backing her bill but with the clause that would have implemented Section 38 excluded. That 1984 legislation will remain uselessly in limbo.

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Grenfell Tower: was the cladding really banned material?

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Note: The Government is now (May 2018) saying it will look at banning Grenfell-style cladding, though the Hackitt report made no such recommendation.

So, was London’s Grenfell Tower, scene of a horrific fire that killed dozens of people, covered in “banned” flammable cladding?   The  answer – worryingly – is probably no. And if that is the case, it exposes the shocking flaws in Britain’s regulatory system for high-rise developments.

The Department of Communities in initially answering this question – before any tests were made on the actual material – said this: “Cladding using a composite aluminium panel with a polyethylene core would be non-compliant with current Building Regulations guidance. This material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18m in height.”

But this is not the case. Such cladding – described officially as “material of low combustibility” (MOLC) is lawful and recommended above 18 metres, as is the more fire-resistant cladding described officially as “non-combustible”. Composite aluminium panels with a polyethylene core may well meet the standard as MOLC. So, as long as the suppliers didn’t do some sort of substitution with inferior stuff, such panels are lawful. Read the rest of this entry

Great Repeal Bill Brexit row: Keep Henry VIII’s name out of it

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One wonders whether the outrage over the “Great Repeal Bill” has been a little overdone. The White Paper explaining how the UK Government will handle all the mass of EU legislation that needs to remain in place after Brexit notes that much of it, while remaining in force, will need “correcting” by delegated legislation – powers given to ministers by Parliament. 

The White Paper explains that this correcting will simply be to ensure the laws, all of which will be transposed into UK law, can continue to operate rather than become ineffective upon repeal of the European Communities Act 1979. Critics fear the Government will go further than this and use delegated legislation, or “Henry VIII powers”, to actually change or abolish laws and rights derived from the EU.     

But this post is more concerned about whether the respectable name of King Henry has been blackened by being dragged into this sordid modern row. “Henry VIII powers” are quite often included in parliamentary legislation (increasingly and controversially of late) to allow a minister to later change the statute by issuing a statutory instrument. 

The name (or nickname, really) of the powers has been mistakenly taken rather literally by some parts of the media with suggestions that the powers, legitimately given by a democratically elected Parliament, are actually derived from the despotic Henry VIII himself, that the Government has dredged up some arcane pre-democratic power and is about to swing Henry VIII’s very own axe to abolish EU law. Thus the Evening Standard: “Ministers defended so-called Henry VIII clauses dating back to 1539”. CNN took a similar line: “The British government wants to invoke controversial powers that date back 500 years to the time of King Henry VIII.” The Independent called them “ancient powers”. This is simply untrue.

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What if James Eadie was right about Brexit?

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Pity poor James Eadie QC, the lawyer tasked with swaying at least six Justices of the UK Supreme Court to his rather unappealing view that David Davis can sweep away 40-odd years of EU rights with the scrawl of his crabbed hand on an Article 50 notice.      

When smooth-as-silk Silk Lord Pannick stood to address their Lordships and Ladyship in the Gina Miller Brexit case, one could sense the hearts aflutter and knees atremble in chambers up and down the country as he caressed the precedents and drove his points home with firm but gentle force. Expect the CSI-effect to kick in during the next round of university applications – an upswing in applications to law schools from 18-year-olds who suddenly really want to be constitutional lawyers. There is, in contrast, no such thing as the Eadie effect.     

Where Pannick was a gallant schooner expertly managing the light zephyrs wafted his way by the assembled justices, deftly avoiding the gentle sandbanks and glittering coral reefs to reach his haven, Eadie was an oil-bespattered tramp steamer buffeted by blizzards, bouncing of rocks and barely making it into port.   

He found his craft beached in his final gasping moments on a very poor (and probably unconstitutional) point in which he seemed to suggest the Justices check what MPs had been doing in the Commons the night before (passing the Brexit motion) and somehow take it into account in their judgment.   

But what if (one can put it no higher) – what if Eadie turns out to be right? Even half right might be good enough. So, what does his somewhat incoherent case amount to?   Read the rest of this entry

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