A system in disrepair

IN ITS drive to stand out from the crowd, one firm of solicitors is using a new marketing strategy. According to Manchester City Council, the firm employs a man to sit under an umbrella by various pubs in the city’s Newton Heath area. He holds a board covered in pictures of council houses in disrepair. And on each picture is a price tag showing how much compensation the damage is worth. The man takes the names and addresses of potential clients and then passes them on to the firm.

The ethics of this sort of marketing technique is central to a controversial debate raging over the tactics of solicitors which make a living by assisting council house tenants with statutory nuisance and housing disrepair cases.

Solicitors say they are only making people aware of their rights and pointing out that clients live in unacceptable situations and frequently suffer health problems. Councils claim solicitors are encouraging tenants to take advantage of legal action to jump the repairs queue and accuse solicitors of draining council budgets and creating an increasingly desperate situation for council housing.

Local authorities, including Manchester, Kingston-upon-Hull, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, claim solicitors frequently leaflet-drop entire housing estates, often in tandem with local surveyors to receive tip-offs about work required.

A spokesman for Sandwell Council says: “This allows people to queue-jump and it is a well-known moan.”

An expensive moan at that. In dealing with court actions from 4,500 tenants, Birmingham City Council has paid £18m in legal costs and compensation in the last five years and says legal action on behalf of council house tenants has increased by 17 per cent.

As Birmingham councillor Dennis Minnis explains: “The legal process has acted as a siphon, sucking tenants’ money for repairs into the pockets of solicitors.”

Birmingham council’s senior principal assistant technical Keith Reading says: “We get about 45 letters before action per week, but in about 85 per cent of these cases we have not had any prior notification of disrepair from the tenant.”

Other local authorities have similar gripes. Reading council claims some tenants are unaware they are diving into the legal process since the wording of solicitors’ leaflets does not make this clear. Manchester council solicitor Celia Tierney agrees this is a problem. “Anecdotally, there have been one or two reports in the previous year of the council receiving surveyor’s reports and letters before action and subsequently discovering the tenant has not known he or she is going to court against the council.”

In response to these claims, the Legal Aid Board (LAB) has changed its rules and appointed an experienced caseworker in each of its 13 area offices. Each one of these takes on the additional role of area investigation liaison officer, working with the central investigation section to identify suspected fraud and abuse by local solicitors who hone in on this type of work.

A spokesman for the LAB comments: “The board has had concerns about mass marketing of the [legal aid] green form scheme.

“The flexibility of the scheme, which in so many circumstances is crucial to ensuring benefit to the client, may in others lead to problems in defining the scope of the scheme and even expose it to fraud and abuse while giving the client little or no benefit. There is a difference between proactive marketing and fraud or abuse.”

He adds that the LAB will have greater control over firms doing housing cases from next January, when only contracted firms will be able to carry out civil advice and assistance legal aid work.

But while the LAB frets over solicitors’ actions, the Law Society cannot see the problem. It maintains that solicitors are complying with professional rules and doing nothing wrong; Law Society regulations allow solicitors to leaflet estates to offer their services but not to cold call potential clients or approach them directly.

Law Society head of press David McNeill says: “The law is the law, and if there is a problem here then that’s a matter for legislation and not for bitching about lawyers.

“As far as we are aware solicitors are doing things properly and working within existing rules. The simple fact is that these tenants have legal rights and those rights are to have the properties on which they are paying rent in proper repair.”

For their part, solicitors deny they are either helping tenants skip the repairs queue or acting in any dubious way. Instead they, too, point out that councils have a duty to keep the homes of their tenants in decent repair and add that they would not hesitate to issue court proceedings if a tenant failed to pay rent.

Manchester firm Antony Hodari & Co frequently leaflets housing estates and acts for council tenants. Nigel Rourke, the firm’s landlord and tenant section manager, denies tenants are blind to the legal action they are taking and refutes council claims that actions are undertaken over previously unreported repairs.

“Why are councils paying out money if these claims are as frivolous as they are making out?” he asks. “Councils should get their own house in order before they start blaming solicitors.”

Rourke claims that council inefficiency is commonplace. He cites the example of a workman who made four separate visits to a home over four months to fix radiators, accidentally forgetting his tools each time. The tenant later discovered that workmen receive a bonus for each visit made. And there’s another of the council failing to repair a dislodged carbon monoxide pipe despite 25 letters and telephone calls.

“Councils would not hesitate to take legal action against a tenant who failed to pay his rent,” he says, “and a tenancy agreement is a contract. Saying we’re helping people jump the queue is an old chestnut given by councils, but if they were more efficient in dealing with the people they serve then there wouldn’t be a repairs queue.”

MPs also back solicitors. Maria Eagle, the high-profile MP for Garston, last month blasted as “pathetic” a request by Liverpool City Council that she use her private member’s bill to stop solicitors “touting for trade” among its tenants.

Eagle, who ranked second in the annual Commons ballot count of private member’s bills, claimed in a letter to the council: “The council, in my experience, routinely rolls over and allows the firm in question an easy life which is clearly also very lucrative.

“I think it is a disgrace that your authority allows rent money to be so easily handed over to local solicitors.”

While local authorities criticise solicitors, the Law Society looks to Parliament for action, MPs say its up to the Law Society, and solicitors blame the council for causing the problems in the first place.

However, even if a good result for one tenant means less money in council coffers for his neighbour, the council’s lack of money does not negate its duty to keep council homes in a fit state for tenants.

There cannot be one law for the council and one for the tenant, no matter how poorly-funded the council is. Surely the whole point of publicly-funded legal advice is to enable individuals to claim such fundamental rights as safe and decent housing.