NEWS RELEASE: Law Centre wins Court of Appeal challenge to legal pause

Wednesday, May 27th 2020

The Royal Courts of Justice

The Court of Appeal today handed down judgment confirming that appeals against possession orders, which lead to tenant evictions, cannot be heard during the current three-month stay (pause) of such proceedings.

The decision helpfully clarifies the official position, which was intended to protect tenants' homes while the government public health guidance required them to stay home. If not extended, the 'legal lockdown' on most possession cases is currently due to expire in a month's time, on 25 June 2020.

The legal rule known as Practice Direction 51Z means that most claims for possession - where a landlord wants their property back - which are brought in the County Court are stayed. This is in order to avoid situations that might risk infection of tenants as well as other court users, court staff and judges.

In the current case, between tenant Kevin Okoro and his landlord, the London Borough of Hackney, the Court of Appeal confirmed that the stay applied not just to possession claims but to appeals on them as well.

In the judgment [PDF], Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor of the High Court, who headed the three-judge panel, noted that 138,000 claims for possession are brought every year, and that “many defendants to possession claims are vulnerable and unrepresented and only realise that action is required of them very late in the day.”

Ironically, lawyers representing tenants on the free duty solicitor scheme learned this week that, while possession hearings start again in late June, the duty solicitor scheme may stay suspended - leading to a likely increase in evictions. This is because the Courts believe it is unsafe for in-person hearings to go ahead and would prefer to hold them remotely by telephone or video. This means that tenants, who are unlikely to get legal advice beforehand, would now be denied it right before their hearing, too.

Nathaniel Mathews, a solicitor at Hackney Community Law Centre who represented Mr Okoro, said:

“We welcome the additional protection for renters who are in danger of losing their homes because of Coronavirus, which the Court of Appeal’s decision affords. But I feel sick at the thought that vulnerable tenants, who will struggle to deal with remote hearings, will be deprived of a free duty solicitor. Sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back.”

Mr Mathews instructed Tim Baldwin QC of Garden Court Chambers and Steven Knafler QC of Landmark Chambers.

Click here for the judgment as published on the BAILII website.

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