Public Interest Law Centre

public law | human rights | legal action

27Jul 2022

Estate residents challenge Lambeth bullying 

27th July 2022|Gentrification, Housing, Judicial review|

Poster advertising TRA meeting.

PILC is in the initial stages of a prospective legal challenge to the proposed ‘regeneration’ (demolition) of the Central Hill Estate in Lambeth. On 14 July our Saskia O’Hara attended a residents’ meeting on the estate to update the local community on the progress of the case.

The meeting, organised by Central Hill’s Tenants and Residents Association (TRA), was a success. Residents learnt about their rights around issues ranging from repairs to the legal requirements for redevelopment consultations and the right of judicial review. 

But if Lambeth council had got its way, the meeting would never have taken place. The day before the meeting, Lambeth’s Resident Participation (!) Officer sent an email to the head of the TRA. The email stated: ‘I would ask that you immediately cancel arrangements for the meeting arranged for Thursday of this week. If you fail to do so, you will be in further breach of the TRA Code of Conduct. Regrettably, the sanctions [for failing to cancel the meeting] will include your removal as TRA Chair […]’

The email also stated that ‘any posters [publicising the meeting] displayed in the common parts of the Central Hill Estate will be removed.’

The offending email.

PILC helped residents formulate a response to the email, citing their right to hold such a meeting, and pointing out that the principles of Lambeth’s own constitution refer to ‘working with other community groups to encourage and support a vibrant and strong civil society.’  Why, then, was the council’s own Resident Engagement Officer actively discouraging the community on Central Hill Estate from organising to learn about their legal rights?

As one resident put it, ‘[t]hanks to PILC […] Lambeth Council has been […] caught out as the bully that it is. For years, residents on Central Hill have been harassed by [the council] simply because our estate is facing demolition […f] rom being told not to garden in 2020 […] to now being told that resolving residents’ longstanding repair needs […] caused by Lambeth’s very own neglect […] contravenes [regulations] Thanks to [PILC], this [behaviour] has been shown to be unconstitutional.’

The legal case continues.

PILC is expanding its work to support and litigate in solidarity with communities experiencing unjust gentrification. Please keep an eye on this blog for regular updates.


13Jul 2022

Estate ballots report shows need for residents’ fund

13th July 2022|Gentrification, Housing|

Photo: Focus E15

A London Assembly member has released the findings of an investigative report into questionable practices in estate-redevelopment ballots. As Saskia O’Hara argues, the report will lend weight to calls for a Resident Empowerment Fund to reduce the power imbalance between councils and developers on one hand and local people on the other.

Sian Berry’s new report on estate ballots, reported on in yesterday’s Guardian, is delicately framed and phrased. When read between the lines, however, it offers a significant indictment of the state of local democracy in London.

Based on research with estate residents, campaigners and scholars, the report highlights serious flaws with the process through which decisions are taken on estate redevelopment. The introduction of resident ballots in 2018 was supposed to ensure that any ‘regeneration’ scheme that involved the demolition of social homes had the backing of a majority of those affected.

Yet Berry’s investigation shows how, in practice, redevelopment ballots are frequently hijacked by vested interests. The report points to ‘biased consultation’, significant spending disparities between landlords promoting a yes vote and local anti-gentrification campaigners, and a ‘lack of clarity […] imped[ing] residents’ capacity to make informed choices’ when voting for or against demolition.

Most damningly, Berry finds that ‘residents’ voices are [often] minimised or erased when they are critical of redevelopment options and processes’.

PILC has been campaigning around this issue since December 2021, when a resident ballot on the Carpenters Estate in East London returned a yes vote in favour of the council’s plans to demolish almost 60% of the estate.  

As the campaign group Focus E15 pointed out at the time, the Carpenters Estate ballot had many of the characteristics of a ‘bought’ vote.  A  Freedom of Information request made by PILC showed a spend of over £350k by Newham Council to secure a decision in favour of redevelopment. Similar concerns have been raised in relation to ballots on the Love Lane estate in Tottenham and the Cambridge Road Estate in Kingston.

In January we wrote to Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for housing, Tom Copley, on behalf of Focus E15. The letter urged London’s government to take action to ensure a more level playing field in ballots on estate redevelopment.

We asked the mayor to cap local-authority spending on canvassing aimed specifically at persuading residents to assent to redevelopment proposals, and to introduce a Resident Empowerment Reserve Fund to ensure estate residents have access to money to run anti-redevelopment campaigns.

Although the Resident Empowerment Fund was voted through the London Assembly as an amendment to the 2022-2023 draft budget, Sadiq Khan subsequently rejected the amendment.  The mayor came down staunchly in support of the current ballot procedures, claiming he ‘[did not] recognise the characterisation of estate residents being frequently left unaware or having little confidence in processes of communication’. 

Sian Berry’s investigation shows just how urgent the need for a cap on council spending and a fund to empower local residents remains. The Assembly Member’s report calls for ‘strengthened oversight, clearer rules around campaigning and ballot conduct, and greater transparency and consistency regarding voter eligibility’.  

But money talks loudest of all in the context of an intensely commodified housing market. As long as councils can vastly outspend anti-regeneration campaigns to secure the outcomes they want in ballots, the concerns of estate residents will come a distant second to the profit motives of developers.

Saskia O’Hara is part of an expanding team within PILC supporting and litigating on behalf of communities experiencing unjust gentrification.  Please keep an eye on the blog for regular updates on this work.

19May 2022

Housing associations & JR: update

19th May 2022|Case Q&A, Domestic abuse, Housing, Judicial review|

In a case brought by PILC on behalf of a domestic abuse survivor, the High Court has ruled that decisions taken by housing associations around the consideration and refusal of management transfers are subject to judicial review.  

In our latest blog, Izzy Mulholland explains the significance of the ruling both in terms of legal precedent and the practical implications for survivors.

What’s going on?

In 2021, our client T, a survivor of domestic abuse, applied for a management transfer that would allow her to move to new accommodation where she and her children would be safe from the perpetrator of the abuse.

When Network Homes refused to grant T’s request, she brought a judicial review challenge against the housing association involved, Network Homes.

What did the court decide?

The key finding in the decision handed down by the High Court in the case known as TRX v Network Homes Limited [2022] is that decisions taken by housing associations relating to the consideration and refusal of management transfers are subject to judicial review.

The court also found that when a council or housing association makes a decision on a a management transfer application, the decision must not be generic. Rather, it must explain properly and adequately why its own policy criteria have not been satisfied to ensure the applicant understands why their application is being refused. This was the main ground on which T’s judicial review challenge succeeded.

What are the other implications of the judgment?

Other key implications of the case include:

  • Clarification around the definition of domestic abuse: Network Homes agreed that domestic abuse does not solely constitute physical abuse. This was in line with the definition of domestic abuse outlined in section 1 of Domestic Abuse Act 2021. As a consequence, the housing association must in future deem all forms of domestic abuse to come within the definition of the term when considering management transfer applications.
  • Requirement to make a homelessness application: Network Homes also confirmed that in T’s case there was no policy or requirement that she make herself homeless in order to access accommodation. Therefore, if Network Homes suggest that an applicant should make a homelessness application before a management transfer can be processed, caseworkers can point to this judgment as a basis for challenging that assertion.
  • Non-molestation orders: the judge in the case noted that Network Homes ‘will have well in mind’ points relating to the relevance of non-molestation orders and the history of the perpetrator. In future Network Homes should consider whether a non-molestation order is enough to protect a survivor (they cannot assume it is) and must instead consider the history and nature of the of the perpetrator’s conduct towards the applicant and their children.
  • Requirement to provide police or MARAC reports: the court clarified that Network Homes’ policy on management transfers does not require a police report or MARAC report be obtained in every case.

How can I find out more?

We have produced two detailed factsheets on the implications of the ruling, one for legal professionals and one for non-specialists supporting survivors of domestic abuse.

10Mar 2022

‘This system was created for people with easy lives’

10th March 2022|Brexit, Migrants' rights|

In 2019-21 PILC supported hundreds of EU citizens and their family members to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS).  We’ve continued to monitor the scheme post-deadline, assisting clients to challenge delays and refusals and access proof of their immigration status through the Home Office’s ‘view and prove’ portal.

As we and others predicted, the government’s refusal to issue physical proof of status has had  disastrous results for some of the poorest EU citizens living in the UK. In many cases, including where homeless people need to prove their status to access vital social assistance, the consequences are still unfolding.

PILC EU rights adviser Kasia Makowska explains more.

I’ve assisted over 700 homeless and insecurely housed EU citizens and qualifying family members with EU Settlement Scheme applications. Unfortunately, getting pre-settled or settled status for these clients often isn’t the end of the story in terms of securing their rights to housing and welfare support after Brexit.  

The people I support are at high risk of homelessness, including rough sleeping, and other forms of social exclusion. Many lack basic computer literacy and access to technology, while others speak little or no English.

My clients therefore find it much harder than the average person to navigate the intricacies of digital bureaucracy. I’d estimate that only 10-15% would be able to use the EUSS digital portal without help from me or a friend or family member.

Meanwhile, despite some improvement over the past year, many local-authority housing officers and charity support workers still seem to be unclear about how to check an EU citizen’s immigration status using the online system. This is leading to vulnerable individuals missing out on vital welfare support and, in some cases, being trapped in destitution

Tales from my caseload

BW, an Estonian citizen, was referred to me for assistance with a settled status application through the Greater London Authority’s scheme for rough sleepers accommodated on an emergency basis during Covid-19. During our first meeting, I went to the EUSS phone app to start BW’s application, only to discover that the app had already been used to apply for settled status.

When we called the Settlement Resolution Centre we found out that BW had had settled status for a year. Neither the client nor the staff in in her emergency accommodation knew that her immigration status had been resolved and that BW was therefore eligible to apply for mainstream housing support.

In another case, AZ—a Polish national—submitted an EUSS application and was granted settled status two days later. However, she missed the email in her inbox and so didn’t realise her application had been successful. AZ therefore failed to include proof of settled status in her submissions when applying for Universal Credit (UC). As a result, she was deemed not to have a qualifying right to reside and her UC application was refused. AZ was left without benefits for six months and became destitute during this period.

‘Can I use your email address?’

In other cases, we are finding that people’s immigration status is showing up incorrectly on the Home Office’s system as the result of multiple applications being submitted. Last year I was contacted by a local authority about a client, CT, who was living in their temporary accommodation (TA). CT needed proof of settled status in order to remain in her TA and access benefits, but did not know how to access this proof.

When I tried to help CT generate a ‘share code’ to prove her status, her online status came up as ‘Certificate of Application’ rather than ‘Settled Status’. Upon investigation, it emerged that a support organisation had submitted two EUSS applications on her behalf. One of these applications had been granted, but the other was still listed as ‘outstanding’. CT was advised to withdraw the outstanding application, which I assisted her to do, but three months later her application was still listed on the system as ‘outstanding’, despite several calls to the Home Office.

There are also issues with people being unable to prove their immigration status because they can’t access the online system. While supporting DS, a Polish national, with his housing and welfare issues, I tried to help him log into his account to generate proof of his settled status. However, we were unable to do so as the email address linked to the account was the private email of the person who had originally helped DS apply to the EUSS. DS had also lost access to the mobile number linked to his account. He was eventually able to recover his account but only after weeks of delay.

Not knowing how to use ‘view and prove’ is also making it harder for some EU citizens to find and retain employment. I was recently contacted by two Polish clients, who told me that employment agencies were refusing to consider them for jobs. Upon investigation, I discovered that both had been asked for a ‘share code’ and didn’t know how to provide one.

In another instance I assisted a Polish client, GN, who has complex needs, to submit a late EUSS application. GN doesn’t speak English and hasn’t seen his allocated social worker for two years.

When GN was granted settled status, I offered to set up an email address for him so he could keep track of his status. But he didn’t feel able to manage proving his immigration status on his own—and asked if I could give my work email address instead. I had to say no, explaining that he will need access to his status for the rest of his life. It seems unlikely that GN will be able to prove his status when he needs to.

A disaster to begin with’

A physical ID wouldn’t have precluded all of these issues. It’s unfortunately extremely common for rough sleepers to lose personal items such as phones and identity documents while on the streets, or to have these items stolen.

This is one reason why making access to services and social assistance dependent on a person’s immigration status is a disaster to begin with.

But the simplicity of a physical ID would have helped. Apart from anything else, it’s (unfortunately!) a system that people are used to and understand. A digital-only system further entrenches the kind of structural inequality that already renders people with lower levels of English, digital literacy and social capital less likely to access their rights.

The bureaucratic issues I’ve described in this blog usually don’t make headlines, not least because they’re fairly boring to read and write about. But the effects on people’s lives are real and—as in the Windrush Scandal—potentially catastrophic.

In a well-functioning democracy those in power would work that to ensure the basics of life, including housing and a decent standard of living, were easily accessible by everyone. (This is the vision we outline in our 2021 research report on the rights of homeless EU citizens after Brexit.) By contrast, and as JL, a PILC client, puts it, ‘[t]his system was created for people with easy lives’.

the3Million has been running a campaign to #fixthedigitalstatus


 

2Feb 2022

Q&A: Why housing associations must protect survivors

2nd February 2022|Case Q&A, Domestic abuse, Housing|

Image: Nicobobinus – licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

We’re in the High Court today for a hearing on a judicial-review challenge our client is bringing against Network Homes.

The challenge relates to the housing association’s refusal to allow T, a domestic abuse survivor, to move to new accommodation where she and her children will be safe. The court will also consider in what circumstances judicial review challenges can be brought against housing associations.

In the latest in our series of Q&As on PILC legal cases, we outline the basis for the challenge and explore the wider issues raised by our client’s case.

What’s the issue?

T lives with her children in a flat that she rents from the housing association Network Homes. T’s ex-partner was physically and emotionally abusive both during and after their relationship and continues to present a risk to T and her children.

In early 2021 T applied for a management transfer that would allow her to move to new accommodation where she and her children would be safe. (A management transfer is when a local authority or housing association allows a tenant to transfer to new accommodation because of exceptional circumstances.)

In July Network Homes refused to grant T’s request.

Why is this a problem?

T has bravely taken steps to protect herself and her children from further abuse by engaging with domestic abuse charities, seeking civil protective orders and now by requesting a move. Network Homes’ refusal to grant her a management transfer means she and her children remain at risk from her ex-partner.

The housing association’s own policy states that the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that might lead to a request for a management transfer being granted include ‘[where] there is a severe or immediate risk to life or personal safety of a […] resident because of domestic violence, harassment, hate crime, safeguarding issues or [if they become the] victim of a serious crime.’

But they have said that the domestic abuse in T’s case does not meet their threshold, outlined in a sub-policy, of constituting a ‘threat to life and limb’. They have suggested she could instead seek a civil injunction against the perpetrator (which she has done) and report any new incidents of abuse to the police.

Are other people experiencing this same problem?

Yes. Councils and housing associations across London are imposing excessively high thresholds when it comes to survivors’ access to management transfers. This is despite the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which provides a statutory definition of domestic abuse going beyond physical violence and was designed to make it easier for survivors to retain secure tenancies.

What are the legal grounds of our challenge?

We are arguing that Network Homes’s decision to refuse our client’s application for a management transfer on the basis that ‘she was unable to provide any evidence of threats to life or limb’ is unlawful because it takes an excessively restrictive view of domestic abuse, limiting it to acts of physical violence. We say that the housing association’s decision goes against its own published policy.

Network Homes have claimed that T ‘could approach the police or local authority to take more immediate and effective action’ as an alternative to the housing association moving her to new accommodation. But when T did approach her local authority, it confirmed that it supported her application for a management transfer. There was no suggestion that the council could or would accommodate her instead.

In our view, expecting survivors to approach their local authority places them in the invidious position of having to choose between their current stable accommodation and taking their chances with whatever (likely precarious) accommodation the council may provide.

Finally, Network Homes’ sub-policy requires domestic abuse cited in support of an application for a management transfer to have been reported to the police or a MARAC. We are arguing that this is both irrational and indirectly discriminatory.

It is irrational, in our view, because of the widely acknowledged fact that many survivors do not report abuse to the police or other public authorities. Therefore, the absence of a police or MARAC report does not indicate an absence of risk.

It is discriminatory, we say, because women are disproportionately likely to face domestic abuse and abuse is often not reported. Therefore, whilst it may be rational to require evidence from the police or other relevant authorities when considering applications for transfers not based on domestic abuse, the requirement places survivors of domestic abuse at an unfair disadvantage.

What are the wider issues raised by this challenge?

It is our view that housing associations fulfil a public function by providing social housing. They receive public funding in order to do so. As such, the safety of domestic abuse survivors should be paramount in the decisions they take.

Social housing providers should not be taking so narrow a view of domestic abuse as to grant the vital safety measure of a management transfer only to survivors who can prove they have experienced a ‘threat to life or limb’.

Domestic abuse survivors seek management transfers in order to remain safe whilst retaining security of tenure. The message Network Homes’ decision in this case sends to survivors is that they should either seek homelessness assistance from the local authority, move into the private sector, or remain in an unsafe home. All of these options are likely to result in reduced safety and security for survivors and their children.

Finally, this case touches upon ongoing legal controversy about whether, and when, judicial review challenges can be brought against housing associations. In hearing T’s case, the High Court will need to decide whether Network Homes is amenable to judicial review as a private registered provider of social housing.

From the decision in a case known as Weaver, the relevant question is whether the act under scrutiny is a private act. To determine that, it will be necessary to examine the nature of the act in the context of the body’s activities as a whole.

We are arguing that Network Homes’s decision in this case, and its policies relating to transfers, are amenable to judicial review. We do not believe that a decision concerning the transfer of a social housing tenancy can be a private act.


Please check back for updates about this case in the coming weeks.

18Jan 2022

Q&A: Challenging unfair EUSS delays

18th January 2022|Brexit, Case Q&A, Migrants' rights|

Image by dullhunk – licensed under CC BY 2.0

In November we issued a claim for permission to apply for judicial review of the Home Office’s delay in processing the application for settled status of an EU citizen facing pending criminal charges.

In the second in our series of Q&As on PILC legal cases, we outline the basis for the challenge and explore the wider issues raised by this case.

What’s the issue?

Our client, F, is a Polish citizen who has lived in the UK since 2006. He applied for settled status in September 2020 but has not yet received a decision on his application.

F has been told that his application has been stayed (a legal term meaning ‘put on hold’) because he is facing criminal charges. The Home Office say F will not receive a decision on his settled status application until there is an outcome in the criminal proceedings.

Why is this a problem?

The criminal charges F faces are highly unlikely to result in a custodial sentence or deportation action. Having lived in the UK for fifteen years, he meets the criteria for settled status.

F suffers from mental health difficulties and alcohol-addiction issues after experiencing significant trauma. These challenges have made it difficult for him to work and have contributed towards him becoming homeless in the past. They have also had a bearing on his contact with the criminal justice system.

Yet F is being prevented from regularising his immigration status. As a result he has been unable to claim welfare benefits or secure housing assistance.

The Home Office’s policy has effected trapped F in destitution.

What are the legal grounds of our challenge?

We are arguing that the Home Office policy which has caused F’s application to be put on hold is unlawful.

Previous versions of the policy directed Home Office caseworkers to consider whether it was ‘reasonable and proportionate’ to delay decisions on applications in cases where applicants face pending criminal charges. However, this discretion has been removed in recent versions and it is now mandatory for applications such as F’s to be delayed, even where delay will cause serious harm.

We say that inflexibility of the current version of the policy is unlawful, and that it breaches the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement.

We are also arguing that the Home Office has failed to consider F’s application for settled status in a reasonable time frame. The standard time frame for considering EU Settlement Scheme applications (EUSS) is five working days or no longer than a month.  Yet F has been waiting for more than a year.

Moreover, in view of the nature of the criminal charges and the length of time the criminal proceedings are taking, we believe it is unreasonable for the Home Office to pause consideration of F’s application.
Finally, we are also arguing that the delay has directly resulted in the hardship to F, which amounts to a violation of his rights under Article 3 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


Are other people experiencing the same issues?

In short—yes.

Our partner organisations report that other vulnerable EU citizens are experiencing long delays (of over six months and in some cases well over a year) in the processing of their EUSS applications.

These delays are causing uncertainty about people’s rights and entitlements. Some applicants are struggling to access benefits they should be entitled to. Others have not been able to obtain valid certificates of application that would allow them to continue to prove their right to work pending a decision.

A significant number of those left in limbo have disabilities or other complex needs. In some cases support organisations and even MPs have written to the Home Office asking for decisions to be expedited—usually to no avail. (Both individuals and support organisations report difficulties contacting the Home Office.)  

Many (though not all) of those experiencing EUSS delays have had their cases put on hold either because they have a criminal record or because they are facing criminal charges. The charges or convictions concerned frequently relate to low-level offences linked to poverty and addiction.

Applicants report distress and anxiety as a result of the delays. At least one has been denied the opportunity to study at university because they could not prove their eligibility for student finance.

What wider issues does this challenge raise?

The Home Office’s policy of staying EUSS applications where there is a pending prosecution benefits nobody.

As PILC solicitor Ellen Fotheringham puts it: ‘Our client, who has lived in the UK for over 15 years, is on the verge of street homelessness as a result of this policy. It is clear that despite countless warnings no lessons have been learned by this government from the Windrush Scandal, with EU citizens now being exposed to the same devastating uncertainty about their rights.’

There is another an important principle at play in this case: a person’s right to remain should not depend on whether they have been charged with or convicted of a criminal offence.

Over 11 million people in the UK have a criminal record. There is a strong link between poverty (and other forms of structural injustice) and having a criminal conviction. Those who are racialised as non-white and those from a migrant background are disproportionately likely to have a criminal record despite people from such groups not being more likely to commit crime.

Stopping people from regularising their immigration status due to a pending prosecution is just one instance of a trend through which rights that should be universal (such as a person’s right to live in the country they call home) are increasingly being differentiated. This means some people are accorded those rights unconditionally, while others (usually members of marginalised groups) may be denied them in certain circumstances.

The government’s plan to make it easier to deprive some British citizens of their citizenship represents another example of this worrying trend.

We will provide further updates on this case as it progresses.