Hackney Council has taken criticism for continuing to make arguments in court around the possession order of a man’s room in a homeless hostel during the lockdown and its associated ban on evictions.
Highly-placed sources within the council have told the Citizen that the Town Hall’s own administration did not know its legal department was continuing to make such arguments in court, in a case of the “left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing”.
The sources characterised the department’s attitude to the case as “we’ve started, so we might as well finish”.
The council issued a claim for possession of Kevin Okoro’s room at the Shuttleworth Hotel back in December, as well as seeking payment of rent arrears and damages for its use and occupation.
The case set a legal precedent in May, after it became central to an argument over whether Mr Okoro’s appeal against the council’s possession order, an order which in normal times could lead to his eviction, could be heard during the legal lockdown.
Mr Okoro, who was being supported by Hackney Community Law Centre (HCLC), argued that appeals such as his own should be included in the three-month stay of proceedings on possession cases – put in place to protect tenants’ homes while the government public health guidance required them to stay home, extended today by government until 23 August.
The Town Hall argued that appeals could in fact be heard during the ban, an argument which, if successful, could have allowed Mr Okoro’s appeal to continue to be heard during the lockdown, though he still would not have been evicted before the original expiration date of the ban (25 June), with all such enforcement suspended.
The council today said that it had no intention at any point of evicting Mr Okoro in the current circumstances.
A London Renters Union spokesperson said: “The wording of the government’s eviction ban makes it absolutely clear that the ban covers all eviction proceedings.
“Hackney Council have gone to the appeal court and argued the opposite position. No one made them do this, and they should apologise.
“The coronavirus crisis is not over. If the council is pushing forwards legal action against its own vulnerable tenants, it is jeopardising their safety, and the safety of the borough.”
The Town Hall has made strong calls for central government to extend the eviction ban for tenants in the private rented sector and has put in place sweeping measures to support their own vulnerable commercial and residential tenants during the pandemic.
The council has since welcomed the ruling disagreeing with its own arguments – statements which HCLC staff, upon hearing them soon after fighting the council in court on the case, branded “counterintuitive”.
HCLC stresses that the Town Hall was under no legal obligation to fight the opposing view, and was free to have made submissions fully agreeing to suspend Mr Okoro’s appeal and others like them during legal lockdown.
HCLC’s Nathaniel Mathews, who represents Mr Okoro, said that the council’s calls for the moratorium on evictions of private sector tenants to be extended beyond 25 June in order to prevent homelessness were “commendable”, while pointing out that: “Exactly the same argument can and will apply in relation to social tenants.”
Mathews has been at the forefront of criticism of central government over fears that, when possession hearings start again, the duty solicitor scheme giving tenants much needed legal advice before their hearing may remain suspended, leading to a likely increase in evictions.
This is due to the courts believing that in-person hearings will be unsafe due to the coronavirus, preferring to hold them remotely.
Mathews 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.”
In response to the LRU’s calls for an apology, the council has stressed that it was “effectively” instructed by the judge to make these arguments when written submissions setting out the relevant legal arguments regarding whether appeals could proceed were asked for by the court.
The Town Hall had no comment to make on the statements from the sources within the council.
A council spokesperson said: “We welcome the ruling in this case – Hackney has been clear throughout the coronavirus crisis that the safety of our residents is paramount and that no evictions should take place during the lockdown period.
“This case and Mr Okoro’s appeal predate the coronavirus pandemic. When the ban on evictions was introduced the hearing was automatically deferred by the court until the end of June.
“However, the court then asked legal representatives for both parties to make written submissions setting out the relevant legal arguments regarding whether appeals could proceed and this was referred to the Court of Appeal to settle the point of law.
“Throughout, this has been a process driven by the courts to determine the status of the eviction ban in relation to appeals.
“At no point have we had any intention of proceeding with an eviction in the current circumstances and we welcome the verdict and the clarity it provides for similar cases and residents concerned about having somewhere safe to stay.
“We have been at the forefront of this issue since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic – pausing evictions in our own council homes even before the eviction freeze introduced by the government, and calling for an extension of the existing ban on evictions for private renters.”