Housing lawyers prepare to battle small claims reforms

A SECOND front will be opened up against the Government's legal reform blueprint when it publishes its consultation paper on raising the small claims threshold from £3,000 to £5,000 this week.

The Legal Action Group (LAG) has joined housing lawyers in warning that tenants being victimised and exploited by their landlords will lose out under the plan, which was announced by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine in October.

The consultation paper will explain how Lord Irvine plans to implement the reform – timed for April 1999.

LAG's head of policy, Vicki Chapman, said Government research into the small claims had only examined the experiences of those people who were using the system, who tended to be middle-class people suing middle-class people.

She said that the Government needed to consider who was not using the small claims system – and suggested many poorer people were giving up their claims because of the unavailability of legal aid.

Housing Law Practitioners Association chair Wendy Backhouse, a partner at legal aid firm Hodge Jones & Allen, said “anecdotal evidence” from practitioners in the field showed many tenants, especially the more vulnerable, were not using the small claims procedure.

She called for housing cases to be put on an equal footing with personal injury cases, which are only included in the small claims procedure if the claim is below £1,000.

She added: “Housing law, which Lord Woolf recommended be simplified and codified, is probably even more complicated than personal injury law, involving contractual obligations, statute law and the need to obtain experts reports from surveyors. For example, how do you quantify the damages claimable for three years spent in a damp house?”

Research published by the Consumers' Association last week highlighting the problems faced by small claims litigants enforcing successful small claims judgments will add to the pressure on the Government to rethink its plans for the small claims procedure.

Out of 111 people interviewed six months after their successful claims, only 30 had received payment in full and on time.