Council struck by 'disease'

Tim Miller reports

LOCAL government lawyers in the West Midlands are being bombarded with writs from legally-aided tenants.

Councils have seen their bills soar as residents use the Section 82 procedure to force local authorities to carry out urgent repairs.

"Section 82s are like a disease – they are infectious and usually come in clusters when a solicitor at a local law centre gets a bee in his or her bonnet," one local authority housing officer commented.

But on this occasion, private practice law firms are largely responsible for encouraging tenants to take action.

A report commissioned by Wallsall Metropolitan Borough Council reveals that a handful of firms have cornered the lucrative market. The report also shows that Wallsall's repair bills have shot up from u600,000, in 1992, to u2.4 million – already u400,000 over budget for the current financial year.

John Flock, deputy manager of the council's legal and administration services, says: "We used to have to deal with these cases once in a blue moon." But now they are believed to be hitting the lawyers' desks at a rate of 40 each week.

The authority now has one solicitor working full-time on the housing repair work with further support from an assistant clerk. Flock says they have coped with the increasing workload by "re-allocating resources" and have not been forced to take on extra staff.

"But we are not alone in this. It is curious to see how some authorities have been hit while others have not."

The Department of the Environment confirms that Section 82s are particularly rife in the West Midlands area.

Steve Cork, head of legal services for Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, says: "We have been getting quite a lot of these for a few years now and I think we have got a reasonably good system for dealing with them."

Cork says the lawyers immediately refer them to housing officers and action is usually taken within 21 days to avoid court action.

But Wallsall's housing chair Thomas Ansell says the whole Section 82 procedure is "immoral". It allows legally-aided tenants to jump the queue for housing repairs and prevents the authority from planning its maintenance programme.

Barry Roberts, who handles Section 82s for local firm Mander & Sharma, named in the Wallsall report, says he will continue to angle for more business. The report revealed that Mander & Sharma already carried out 42 per cent of Section 82 cases against Walsall.

On the issue of "queue-jumping" he says that the council should consider why there is a queue in the first place.