The consultation response drew heavily on our 2020 Solving Housing Disputes report, which set out our analysis of the challenges facing landlords and tenants as well as outlining proposals to create a cogent and accessible housing dispute system. At the core of our recommendations was an urgent need for greater coherence between redress and advice providers, easier access to legal aid funded advice and the promotion of dispute resolution where appropriate, to bring about fair and sustainable outcomes.
Our response to the consultation reflected JUSTICE’s general support for the spirit of the White Paper as a welcome step forward towards a long-term solution that addresses both underlying and systemic issues within the current framework.
In particular, JUSTICE supports the abolition of section 21 “no-fault” evictions, the ending of blanket “No DSS” conditions imposed by landlords and the introduction of a Decent Homes Standard which will go some way to improving the situation for huge swathes of tenants stuck in poor quality, badly maintained housing.
Despite JUSTICE’s support for elements of the White Paper, our consultation response also highlights areas in need of significant reform:
- Increasing accountability: JUSTICE notes that the above proposals are dependent on there being proper procedures put in place for monitoring and evaluation. Without increasing accountability within the sector, there are concerns that the reforms will not achieve their intended purposes and/or will leave open the door for parties to side-step their obligations.
- An incoherent system of redress: JUSTICE has highlighted the disaggregated dispute resolution system as a barrier to redress for tenants. Too often, tenants find themselves passed “from pillar to post” as they struggle to navigate a confusing system of schemes, ombudsmen and tribunals. Therefore, while JUSTICE welcomes any proposal to provide tenants with improved access to redress, such as the introduction of a dedicated PRS ombudsman, JUSTICE recommends a single point of entry – a “one stop shop” portal for all redress providers as a better solution than further expanding the network of options available.
- Improved Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): Our consultation response welcomed the White Papers acknowledgment of the limitations of court processes for addressing housing disputes. JUSTICE recommends that increased investment in ADR, where appropriate, would help address the underlying causes of a dispute. Nonetheless, this is dependent on ADR being introduced at an early, pre-court stage of a dispute.
- Access to legal aid: If the White Paper is to achieve its intended outcomes in improving fairness and access to justice, it must be accompanied by improved investment in legal aid. While certain proposals such as the soon to be introduced Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service are welcome, JUSTICE argues that this does not go enough. JUSTICE recommends that greater focus should be placed on earlier pre-action advice, improving access to legal representation in areas currently deemed “housing advice deserts” and expanding the range of issues that legal aid lawyers can provide advice on – particularly around “clustered issues”.
- The Housing Disputes Service: The current desire and appetite for reform in the PRS sector provides a unique opportunity to consider comprehensive fit-for-purpose housing dispute system rather than the fragmented system currently in place. JUSTICE proposes a new model of dispute resolution for housing, the Housing Disputes Service. In intervening early in a housing dispute, investigating the underlying issues that give rise to the claim (e.g., welfare and benefits issues, debt issues and mental health needs) and providing holistic support to achieve lasting solutions, the aim of the HDS is to de-escalate housing disputes, ‘nip problems in the bud,’ and sustain relationships between parties beyond the lifetime of the dispute. Following a holistic investigation, there would be an initial and provisional assessment (providing a preliminary view of what should follow from it in terms of resolution), before moving on to a DR stage (employing several DR methods including open discussion, negotiation, and mediation) and if necessary, concluded by final determination. To help identify the underlying issues and ensure that parties have access to expert advice and support, the HDS would be serviced by a range of professionals from various sectors such as housing, benefits, and the health sector as well as legal experts funded by separate legal aid contracts. A key aim of the HDS is to improve fairness – especially in circumstances where there might otherwise be an imbalance in resource or power between parties. Rather than being seen as an alternative to court, it is anticipated that in its final form, the HDS would become fully integrated as a mandatory first step in the current court process. Parties’ discretion to progress a claim in the way they see fit would be maintained through the right of appeal from the HDS to a court or tribunal for final determination.