Emma Turnbull: My first three months of pupillage

16 Feb 2022

Emma is currently undertaking pupillage in our Housing and Immigration teams. She previously completed a PhD in history at the University of Oxford in 2017, before becoming a MP’s immigration caseworker. She will be available to accept instructions from April 2022.

My first three months have been predominantly spent in county courts shadowing my supervisor, Martin Hodgson, and other members of the One Pump Court housing team.

I have seen a range of different housing cases, notably possession proceedings initiated by (private and public) landlords against their tenants, and tenant claims (or counterclaims) against their landlord for disrepair.

What has struck me most in observing possession proceedings is the long shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government placed a ban on evictions during the national lockdowns in 2020, and banned bailiff-enforced evictions until 31 May 2021 in England (30 June in Wales). These measures protected tenants from immediate eviction. But since those bans have been lifted, there has been a spike in the number of tenants facing possession claims by their landlords. Ministry of Justice statistics reveal a 207% rise in the number of landlord possession claims issued in July and September compared to the previous quarter.

At the same time, Citizens Advice reported in October that the pandemic “has pushed thousands of people behind on their rent, owing at least £360 million, while the numbers of people seeking our help related to homelessness has increased significantly”.

With rent arrears being a key reason for a landlord to seek possession – indeed, in certain circumstances the law allows no discretion to judges but stipulates that the court must make a possession order (see Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1988, Ground 8) – any tenants who fall behind on their rent over the coming months are likely to be in a highly vulnerable position. Advisers should brace themselves for an inevitable rise in housing enquiries, and for the need to make urgent homelessness applications.

Beyond possession proceedings, I have observed a number of cases involving allegations of anti-social behaviour (ASB) by tenants, including committal proceedings where public-sector tenants have faced prison sentences for breaching the terms of their injunction.

As a pupil, this is not something I had encountered before. Like many people, I had (naively) assumed that only the criminal courts could send you to prison for ASB. But that is not the case. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (BCPA) 2014 expanded the tools available to public-sector landlords to tackle ASB. A county court may grant an injunction against any person aged 10 or over if it is satisfied, on the balance of probabilities (i.e. to the civil standard of proof), that:

a person has engaged, or threatens to engage, in anti-social behaviour, and
it is just and convenient to grant the injunction for the purpose of preventing that person from engaging in anti-social behaviour (BCPA 2014, s1).

ASB is defined as conduct:

  • that has caused or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to any person;
  • capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to a person in relation to that person’s occupation of residential premises; or
  • capable of causing housing-related nuisance or annoyance to any person (BCPA 2014, s2(1)).

Such conduct can include shouting, swearing, or otherwise causing “annoyance” to your neighbours.

Once an injunction has been made, breaching it (i.e. by engaging in the prohibited conduct) is a contempt of court. The standard of proof for contempt of court is the higher criminal standard (beyond reasonable doubt), but, if proved, is punishable with an unlimited fine or imprisonment for up to two years (Contempt of Court Act 1981, s14).

This is a worrying development for those who represent tenants. It is common practice for ASB injunctions to be made at without-notice hearings on the basis of partial information and/or hearsay evidence. Without proper legal representation to challenge this evidence, an individual may soon find themselves in committal proceedings for contempt and facing a possible sentence of imprisonment for breach of an injunction that should never have been granted in the first place. These cases are causing me to reflect on the need to raise public awareness of the true state of our ASB laws.

Outside of the court room, there have also been a few training events to attend. I enjoyed participating with my fellow pupils in ALBA’s Introduction to Judicial Review webinar series, which gave me an insight into the process of bringing and conducting judicial review proceedings.

I was fortunate to hear a talk by Baroness Butler-Sloss about her experience of being the first woman appointed as a Court of Appeal judge, as part of One Pump Court’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lecture series. She related how she was known as a “Lord Justice of Appeal” for several years until in 1994 the Master of the Rolls (the then Sir Thomas Bingham MR) introduced her as “Lady Justice”. The message of the evening was perseverance: keep working hard and challenging injustice, in whatever ways you can. This is advice that I intend to take with me into the second three months of pupillage.

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