Wednesday, 13 February 2008

No Access to the Law

As regular readers will know I am facing another round of legal problems with the representative of my former landlord. He seized the £1000 deposit back in September and now is claiming anout £400 to do up the garden and £1000 additional rent. So, I needed advice on how to deal with this. Solicitors (equivalent of attorneys in the USA and notaries in other European countries) cost about £300 (€405; U$585) per hour, some as much as £800 per hour, so well out of the reach of even well off people to consult. In the UK we have a system called Legal Aid but in 2004 limits were introduced on who could access it as it was felt it was becoming too expensive a system to run. Trying to find out the top limit is difficult. The government has a Legal Aid Elibility Calculator: Legal Aid is still available for those on benefits or very low incomes but for anyone in a job or comfortably off you are not longer entitled. It has been denied increasingly to asylum seekers too. Consequently access to the legal process is now barred to the bulk of the population. Only the very wealthy can easily access legal services. Even when you have to use solicitors as when selling or buying a house you find they give very poor service for the thousands of pounds you pay. I have already outlined on this blog how little service we received for paying £3500. There are only two solicitors companies in my town that will handle legal concerns of tenants, all the others will only take you as a client if you own a house and pay their fees. Today I met a woman, a first-time buyer who had used the same solicitors as I had done and came off even worse, they missed many legal traps in the lease she signed and she has found herself repeatedly liable for a whole range of charges costing hundreds of pounds on each occasion which the solicitors had not alerted her to.

The only other option for legal advice even (not representation, increasingly you have to represent yourself in court and battle against people using high-paid lawyers who know all the tricks) is to go the Citizens' Advice Bureau. Now, they are a wonderful charity staffed by volunteers but as a result of 'rip-off' Britain with rapacious landlords and so many scams they are terribly overworked. I tried emailing my local branch on Monday and telephoned them constantly through yesterday and so today went to their office. I was seen within 1 hour of arriving which was pretty good. It was a very unnerving situation though as the advisor laughed my concerns off as 'just a story' and said I was wasting his time. Eventually I made him see how afraid we are of people demanding money and how terrifying it can be when debt collectors turn up at your house. By the end of the meeting he seemed to take me more seriously. I guess I am in not as severe a position as many people who come and see him, no-one is trying to evict me yet or take my children into care or those things. However, it took time to emphasise to him that to us it is important and we do not have the money being demanded and if we had to pay we would begin the spiral into other problems such as being unable to pay the mortgage.

One piece of advice if you are going to a Citizens' Advice Bureau, turn up with as much paper-based evidence as you can muster. There were people in there with box files about their cases. The advisors seem to expect this and it means they are less likely to perceive what you are talking about as 'a story' and nothing more. Include all the letters you have received and all of those you have written. Despite us being in this electronic age, emails do not count. On the other hand do not make my mistake and write an explanation of what has happened to you, rather explain it orally. This will allow the advisor to engage fully with you and ask questions as you go along.

Anyway, it turns out that however much the police dismissed our concerns, we were being harassed under the 1997 Freedom from Harassment Act when the landlord's representative sat outside our house and repeatedly kept calling especially as it was causing visible stress to my housemate. We were apparently in our rights to refuse to talk to the man and should have insisted he only communicate on paper. Apparently neither phonecalls (unless recorded) or verbal statements or emails count for anything legally. We should have similarly got a letter from the bank telling us about the steps to repossess. We should have tried to get the landlord's representative to write down that he insisted on us moving out in a 2-week window of his choosing as apparently they cannot get you to move out with less than 2 months' notice. Of course people somehow make an assumption that being middle class you know all these rules, but of course we do not and landlords and letting agents always know far more than we do.

As it turns out we are liable for the £1000 rent for January as these fixed-term contracts can never be broken even if you give notice or even if new tenants move in. They are great for landlords because they can get two incomes from the same property. The issue over work on the garden apparently has no legal guidelines and though we had vacated the property we were still legally responsible for it to the end of our contract so the grass which has grown up should have been cut by us. In court, we could contest the £400 charge for cutting grass on such a small area. In addition, the landlord cannot apparently demand extra charges on top of the £1000 deposit he took from us, so even if £400 is soaked up by the garden, he has to use the £600 remaining towards the rent charge meaning we have to still find another £400 but no more. Of course this is not how the landlord's representative sees it as he took our deposit for us causing him difficulties, not to cover expenses.

Apparently the best thing for us to do now is to get the landlord to take us to court. Of course we cannot afford legal representation (you only get it free if you have been charged with a crime, not in a civil case like this) so I will have to defend myself. Fortunately once I had managed to get the Citizens' Advisor to see how much trouble we were facing he advised me to come back for further advice about the legal documents once they are issued, so I did not feel so guilty about seemingly wasting his time. People need to understand that legal threats are frightening; the law is incredibly confusing and seems to be very imbalanced to the bulk of the population. We need help to deal with it or there is no point in having laws we might as well simply go back to Stone Age society in which the strongest one in a fight comes out on top.

Sorry this posting has gone from a general issue back to talk about my housing woes. However, it is a slice of the challenges that UK people face in dealing with the law. There were ten people in the waiting room at the Citizens' Advice Bureau when I arrived there this morning and I am sure they could tell similar stories of how hard it is to contest things legally in the UK, in fact two of them did tell me.

As I have noted before, power in the UK is in the hands of the very wealthy with the bulk of the population stripped of rights to oppose the bullying we get put under. It is no different to the Victorian times, we are simply supposed to put up with our maltreatment and be grateful for it. Our landlord's representative clearly believes that we should be so grateful for him letting us live in the house and that we should keep paying for the privilege of the months of pressure he put us under. Fixed-term tenancy contracts should be banned, they are not feasible to work with in a country where jobs are ever changing. It is perverse to be able to charge people rent for a house they are not living in. Greed seems to have become king in this country and (lots of) money is the only definition of power. As our rights and access to the law are regularly eroded it simply exacerbates this situation further in favour of the rich. Is it no surprise that people turn to rage to get some kind of recompense when there are no longer any legal means open to them? The British are too passive to revolt, but I am sure increasingly frustrated people will strike back locally against these fat cat lawyers and Rackman landlords and who can blame them?

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