The government’s announcement of a potential new Housing Court comes at exactly the right time for the housing sector. It builds on the government’s recent promise of increased investment in the sector, which has been widely welcomed.
The housing secretary, James Brokenshire, has commented that a new housing court would provide tenants and landlords with access to justice when they need it and help to create a fair housing market that works for everyone.
We currently have a legal system that is mostly accessed by county courts, but increasingly by tribunals and occasionally by the High Court. It is not broken but it is stretched and in the case of the county courts has to cope with busy district judges not only handling a heavy workload but also having to deal with a wide range of legal disputes, from family to housing to debt recovery.
There are three main issues facing tenants and landlords that relate to the housing secretary’s comments. The first of these is delays. Under the current system, it can take several weeks for a hearing to reach court. That can only create stress and uncertainty for tenants and landlords. A new housing court must have enough resources to hear cases more quickly. To do this, it needs to be properly resourced and there is no point moving the chairs around by using judges who are currently sitting as full-time judges in the county court.
Secondly, the current pool of judges in the county court are mostly a combination of barristers and solicitors. In my view, a new housing court should build on that core expertise but also try to be innovative by seeking out a wider pool of talent. This could include lawyers specialising in acting for tenants as well as landlords, together with housing academics and those who work in housing and estate management. Not only do professionals in such non-legal areas know as much law as most housing lawyers, but they could bring wider practical experience to improve access to justice.
Thirdly, consistent decision making is required. Clients get frustrated when one judge takes the first hearing and at the next hearing their case is heard by a different judge who takes a different view on the case. To overcome this, each hearing should be allocated to the same judge who should hold onto the case throughout and give court users confidence in his or her decision making.
If these issues are addressed, the housing court will not only give tenants and landlords access to justice when they need it, but also contribute to a fairer housing market that works for everyone.