£90,000 solicitor bill not paid

Helen Sage reports

South Herefordshire District Council is embroiled in a row with the district auditor's office over an unpaid solicitor's bill of about £90,000.

The sum, which is owed by the council to sole practitioner David Barry, includes solicitor fees, counsel fees and agent fees for representing members of a Ross-on-Wye Sports Centre Association in a High Court case.

Barry was asked in 1992 to represent the three members, who were accused of having no mandate to stand on the association's committee because they had not been properly elected.

The council agreed to pay the costs of the case because it owns the freehold of the sports centre and nominates members for the committee. But last

November the district auditor ordered that the council should not pay the fees.

The Department of Environment also refused to pay because it claimed the council should foot the bill.

Barry said: "The non-payment of these fees is putting my business under extreme financial pressure. I am unable todevelop the practice as I would like and there is a risk that my business will go under."

Alan Greaves, South Herefordshire's assistant chief executive, said the council wanted to pay Barry's fees but that it was prevented from doing so by the district auditor's ruling.

Eversheds' Cardiff office, which is representing the council, and the district auditor's lawyers were due to meet last week in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

The Housing Act's clauses on anti-social behaviour do not go far enough in protecting council tenants against nuisance neighbours, say local government housing lawyers.

Many local authority lawyers who initially welcomed proposals to speed up the eviction process will not be adopting some of the key recommendations because they claim they are flawed.

The legislation, passed in July, provides a power of arrest where threatening behaviour has occurred; the use of professional witnesses to protect victims; an introductory tenancy scheme; the abolition of the 28-day waiting period before possession proceedings can begin; powers of injunction; and the introduction of a new grounds for possession in circumstances where domestic violence has occurred.

But many local authorities will not be practising the Act's key piece of legislation which gives council tenants a 12-month probation period.

Some say it will slow down the eviction process because tenants will be able to appeal against an eviction notice through judicial review.

Others say the clause is irrelevant because tenants do not misbehave until after 12 months and good tenants should not be subjected to a probation period in order to restrain bad ones.

Lawyers say uncertainty over housing evictions will continue because the court's discretion on the fairness of an eviction order will remain.

They are also worried that this discretionary power will continue to accentuate regional differences.

Vivien Jackson, housing solicitor at Salford City Council, said: "By leaving discretionary powers intact I am not convinced that victims [of nuisance neighbours] are going to get any more protection than they did before."

Celia Tierney, housing solicitor at Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, is concerned that powers of arrest have not been extended to include threats and violence against property and pets.

She said: "I remember a case where a tenant's aviary was set on fire in front of him. The new Act does not make any provisions to protect tenants from this kind of behaviour."

Sue Chaplin, housing solicitor at Manchester City Council, said: "On the surface the Act is what we have been campaigning for and in some ways it will speed up the eviction process, but there are some oversights."

Jo Miller, senior housing solicitor at Liverpool City Council, said the Act had clearly been "a rushed job" but that in conjunction with Lord Woolf's recommendations on access to justice, it would go some way to speeding up the eviction process.

The Housing Act will be brought into force in the autumn and early in 1997. It is intended to set a framework for the development of housing into the next century.