Home front

Head of legal for homelessness charity Shelter Russell Campbell talks to Fiona Callister about the increase in his workload and how larger firms can contribute more effectively



It would be great if Russell Campbell’s role became redundant, but unfortunately that is very unlikely to happen anytime soon. He is head of legal for Shelter, the charity representing the homeless, and the problems he deals with are just not going to go away. In fact, the workload for the charity’s legal arm is growing.

Last week, the charity hit the headlines when its merger with fellow homelessness charity Crisis was called off. After eight months of negotiations the plans fell apart due to the fact that Crisis chief executive Shaks Ghosh and the charity’s trustees were concerned that its ethos and special Christmas activities would be lost in Shelter’s more holistic approach.

All the merger discussions were carried out at board level and Campbell’s legal team was not involved. Campbell says that, had it been successful, the legal arm would not have been affected, because Crisis does not presently offer that type of service.

The main body of work for the department comes from Shelter’s own national network of housing advisers, but it also has a contract from the Legal Services Commission to offer advice on housing issues to legal services contract holders, which include both private practice law firms and law centres. In the latter respect, Shelter is used rather like counsel, offering a specialism that the smaller practices would be unable to build up alone.

The need for specialisation in housing issues has become even more acute in recent years because of the range of additional legislation touching on the subject, such as the Children Act and community care legislation.

“The demands on us have grown,” explains Campbell. “As well as simple advice, we do take cases on ourselves, even long-distance ones. As we have no catchment area we cover the whole country.”

To see if the department’s coverage could be improved by moving some lawyers out of London, the charity is piloting a scheme in the North West, where it has three lawyers on a trial basis.

The department currently has a couple of hundred cases on its books, which Campbell describes as being a reasonable workload and comparable to what the lawyers would be handling in private practice.

But in addition to that, around 300 queries a month come in from contract holders, which can range from very straightforward research to more complex research, as well as other cases that Shelter decides to take on itself.

Another large part of the department’s role is advising and lobbying the Government on policy issues covering homelessness.

“Two members of our team spent around half their time advising on amendments to the Homelessness Act, which can be difficult when you have to meet billing targets which we have to,” says Campbell, adding that the team was delighted to be involved in shaping the new act, which will impose a duty on local authorities to draw up plans to prevent homelessness.

Shelter has also been involved in preparing amendments to the Children Act to hopefully rectify an anomaly that was brought up by a Court of Appeal decision last year, in which the amount of help that local authorities have to provide to homeless families with children was limited. As a result, claims Shelter, children are being put into care because their parents are homeless. As Campbell highlights, the decision marked a return to the type of thinking seen in the film that launched Shelter, Cathy Come Home.

But he believes that the amendments to the Children Act will be brought to the statute book before an appeal can be brought against the Court of Appeal’s decision.
Other examples of cases that the department has been involved in includes one which it lost last week, concerning homeless payments and whether someone could be judged to have voluntarily left their home.

There have also been test cases following on from the Human Rights Act regarding introductory tenancies. These are like probationary tenancies, under which a local authority can evict a tenant if things fail to work out within the introductory time. However, problems arise, says Campbell, if the decision is challenged by the tenant, in which case the local authority reviews its own decision, with the County Court having virtually no power to do so independently.

The problem of housing asylum seekers has also led to new types of cases coming onto Campbell’s desk. One recent case it handled involved bullying from private landlords who were housing asylum seekers in Liverpool.

“The cases stem from something that is down to earth and practical,” says Campbell. “If you’re living in a tower block where the lift’s broken and you have to use the stairs, but the injuries received from torture in your home country make it difficult to walk, is it reasonable to expect you to carry on living there? No, clearly not. But what if your landlord threatens to shop you to the Home Office because you want to move on?”

Perhaps surprisingly for such a busy department, Campbell is not chasing offers of pro bono time from larger law firms.

“We get lots of offers of help,” he says. “But because housing is such a specialist area, it becomes a cost to us because of the resources we have to put into supervision. Many City firms seem to believe that if they make the time of their lawyers available, that’s enough. But it doesn’t work like that for housing. Employment is a great example where pro bono does work, because they’re dealing with the same issues, but City firms just don’t do housing and we
can’t just launch a keen trainee on a homeless person.”

The charity does include City lawyers in its duty schemes, which cover five courts in London. This allows lawyers to get a glimpse at what advocacy is really like before “they disappear back to their cosy lives and retire at 35”.

The best help that a City law firm can provide is to give the charity the books and materials that it needs. Campbell says the best relationship his department has with a City firm is with Lovells, through its pro bono coordinator Yasmin Waljee. So what does Lovells do for Shelter?

“They take us out for free lunches and provide us with materials that they don’t need anymore,” says Campbell. “They’re generally supportive of our work and that relationship will continue.

“The lunches are very good, but we’re lobbying for free membership of their gym,” he jokes, adding that Shelter’s offices are just around the corner from Lovells’. So they would not have to go very far at all. And there are only 80-odd people in the London headquarters, which really would not make that much difference to the queue for the running machines.

On a more serious point, Shelter also needs additional IT resources, as litigation is becoming increasingly IT-dependent. Particularly in demand are laptops to enable the charity’s lawyers to carry out long-distance litigation across the country.

But while laptops might help for the moment, Campbell says there might come a point when the charity has to widen out its national coverage, particularly as the litigation process moves increasingly towards alternative dispute resolution, in which circumstance it is more important for the lawyer to be near to the client.

“There are many parts of the country where we can’t find good housing lawyers,” says Campbell. “And private practice firms, certainly the legal aid firms, still tend to operate within a catchment area and haven’t roamed further afield.”
Unfortunately for both Campbell’s department and the wider community, he is beginning to see a slight resurgence of a phenomenon that brought Shelter to the attention of the general public a decade ago – namely, repossessions by mortgage lenders.

“We did a huge amount of work on those in the early ’90s, and if the housing market does get rickety, we’ll do them again.

“The early ’90s was a time when donations to Shelter really increased, because people could see that homelessness was not dependent on a person’s fault.”
Russell Campbell
Head of legal
Shelter

Statistics
Organisation Shelter
Sector Charities
Employees 500 plus
Legal capability 17 (eight qualified lawyers plus paralegals)
Head of legal Russell Campbell
Reporting to Head of housing services division Christine Parrish
Main location for lawyers London