Direct Help and Advice (DHA): A lifeline for the potentially homeless
By Russell Pollard - Derby News on August 5, 2015
When you are teetering on the precipice of homelessness, you are vulnerable. You are not there because you are in control of events, organised, and clear about the future – you are delicately poised, anxious and with an uncertain outlook. To cap it all, the full weight of the formality of law will start easing you out of security and safety, crowbarring you against your will…and then one day, the lid may flip off, and you’re evicted. Begging for a sofa, pleading for forgiveness, feeling ashamed about your state….or being resigned to sleeping in a hostel, or crouching down, curling up embryonically, to spend a cold night in a doorway, or under a bridge. The long night hours will give you plenty of time to reflect on where it all went wrong.
People who are uncontrollably sliding towards homelessness because of rent or mortgage arrears, or the actions of an unreasonable landlord don’t always fully realise the severity of the situation they are in. They certainly have little chance of managing their way out of it, or presenting a legal case for their defence when they are taken to court. It is like sending a “lamb to the slaughter”. But help is at hand in Derby.
The basic aim of Direct Help and Advice (DHA) (previously Derbyshire Housing Aid) is to stop people becoming homeless. They employ fully qualified solicitors who are in a position to represent the interests of their clients in a court room environment. DHA have the local contract as the duty solicitor at the Derby Combined Court Centre ( near to the Council offices) and will support anyone who finds themselves there with no representation. They also have many clients who they meet well before formal legal proceedings are contemplated, or over the phone for simple advice. And the good thing is – all of the services are free of charge.
I had the opportunity to observe the work of DHA on two occasions during the Tuesday morning court sessions. The agenda for the morning, although published, is somewhat uncertain; it’s not always clear who will actually be present and who needs help. For those who required duty support, their court appearance was preceded by a 15 minute meeting in a private room where the facts and figures were gleaned from the client, digested into a meaningful form that was relevant to the case, and a way forward formulated. In some cases this would be followed up with an informal conversation with the representative from the Housing Association ( most actions were from Social Landlords) and, quite often, an agreement made before the hearing. This made the court appearance a formality. If the landlord had an entrenched position, then the DHA solicitor would need to compose a creative approach for getting the most positive outcome for the client using their experience, knowledge and legal savvy.
I saw in total 7 cases, these are just 2 examples.
John ( not his real name), a Welshman, was living in Derby, and renting a property from a local Housing Association (HA). He was in his mid-20s, and managed to secure a short-term job for a few weeks back in his native Cardiff. Unfortunately he didn’t tell the Housing Association, and explain his position. While he was away, he hadn’t got a mobile phone charger, and the battery was flat, so there was no means of contacting him. He missed paying his rent. Perhaps feeble excuses, and he was in the wrong, but tenants being slightly disorganised should not be unexpected for social landlords. The HA couldn’t contact him, so took him to court – no other reason. He was making efforts to get paid employment, and so be more reliable with his payments. He had agreed to pay the minimum of £3.70 per week towards the arrears with the hope of paying off more from his earnings. Despite his difficult financial situation the HA wanted him to pick up the court fees of £250 which would have exacerbated his problem. The DHA solicitor presented a compelling case which resulted in John not being evicted, and further convinced the judge not to charge John with the court fees; these were to be paid by the HA. Had DHA not been present to support John he would almost certainly have been evicted, been left with an unpaid debt which would have made getting another tenancy almost impossible,
As we were walking to court for my second visit, at 10am, the DHA solicitor was telling me about Jane’s situation (not her real name) ; she had been told that the bailiffs were going to her house at 11.30am, that morning, to evict her. She was in her 20s, had just been in prison for child neglect, both her children were taken into care, she was recovering from drug addiction and depression. The last thing she needed now was to become homeless, but that was the clear intention of the HA.
When we met with Jane just before the court hearing she, and her cousin, were explaining what they were doing to get her housing benefits in order – she hadn’t claimed anything due to the chaos in her life. The solicitor discussed with her the various actions she was taking, as well as other options she could follow up. In the few minutes left before the start of the session, they agreed a positive plan, and she was briefed on how to conduct herself. At the informal meeting with the representative from the HA, he was not willing to compromise; the outlook was not looking good.
The DHA solicitor presented a convincing case, that demonstrated that she was now trying to turn her life around. She was prepared to make commitments about her future payment obligations. The judge saw that she was serious about her future and decided not to evict her, and gave her a last chance to remain in her home. She was back in control of her life. A surprising victory for DHA, and Jane could barely contain herself as she left the courtroom.
In all of the cases I witnessed the outcomes were positive for the clients. These were just 2 from a significant annual caseload. The statistics, below, speak for themselves.
In the year 2014/15, DHA had contact with nearly 5300 people , 3400 of whom were telephone clients, the remainder were caseworks with 750 being court duty as in the examples above.
Of all of the cases, 64% related to possession orders, 22% statutory homeless claims and the remainder around illegal evictions, serious disrepair, and anti-social behaviour.
55% of the cases on court duty were from Social Landlords, 21% from the Council, 18% Mortgage arrears, and 6% private landlords ( although many private landlords use the accelerated possession process through court)
93% of the cases resulted in a positive outcome for the tenant ( adjournments, or suspended possessions).
For these 93% of cases, the root problem is not solved when they leave the courts, that would be a much more complex issue to address. DHA have saved these people from slipping through the last “crack in the system” which can routinely condemn these vulnerable people to homelessness and a life of lost opportunity and misery. There is something wrong with a set-up which can easily evict people who cannot readily defend themselves other than with the intervention of organisations like DHA. In this respect, their contribution to containing the rise in homelessness, and fighting for a quality of life, for so many people, is invaluable.