Monday, 14 April 2014

GLC's launches free illegal eviction 'advice card' to prevent unlawful evictions in Scotland

Govan Law Centre (GLC) has produced a handy pocket-sized card for tenants in the private rented sector in Scotland to advise them of their rights against unlawful eviction and harassment. The card is for use by Police Scotland, tenant advisors and representatives, and private sector tenants.

GLC is aware of particular problems of unlawful eviction and harassment in many parts of Glasgow, but the problem itself is of course widespread across Scotland in the private rented sector. Removing a tenant from their home - changing the locks - without a court order is not only a civil wrong but a criminal offence under section 22 of the Rent (Scotland) act 1984.

GLC is working with Police Scotland to avoid any misunderstandings and confusion in practice, where private landlords break the law and often go unpunished, while tenants are illegally removed from their tenancies.

Our card was written by GLC solicitor Christine McKellar, Govanhill Law Centre solicitor Rachel Moon, and GLC's Prevention of Homelessness Project's Garry Burns.

Monday, 31 March 2014

New national advocacy service launched in Scotland for children and parents

A new national advocacy service, Let’s Talk ASN, to be run by Govan Law Centre (GLC) and charity Kindred, will be launched tomorrow (1 April 2014) to replace the existing Take Note service. As reported in TES, the centre expects a “significant increase” in referrals regarding ASN issues, the most serious of which can mean that children end up missing school for several months.

Calls to GLC's own education law helpline have risen from 638 in 2011-12 to 1,159 after only 11 months of this financial year – and the vast majority have been related to ASN issues. The final figure is expected to reach up to 1,400 calls.

GLC's Iain Nisbet, head of education law at the centre, said that calls frequently came from parents or disability groups concerned that a service had been withdrawn after funding had disappeared or a staff member had been redeployed.

Calls covered the “full spectrum” of needs, he explained, and might mean that a child with a sensory impairment could not follow a teacher’s instructions, or that a student with complex medical needs would no longer have someone to assist with taking medicine. In one case he knew of, a child who required oxygen to be administered lost specialist support and subsequently missed two months of lessons, returning later only on a part-time basis.

“A child can end up missing months of school or there may be a requirement for the parent to come in and effectively do the job, which is not possible in every case,” Mr Nisbet said. Another common issue was insufficient support as disabled teenagers moved into adulthood, with some councils neglecting their duty to plan for that transition. “We get a lot of calls from people in May or June saying ‘My child’s leaving school in a month and we don’t know what they’re going on to’,” he said.

The new service’s recruits include Glasgow’s former head of special educational needs, Margaret Orr. It is now seeking volunteer advocates, including teachers, to deal with demand. But Mr Nisbet stressed that there were “plenty of examples of good practice” around ASN education in Scotland. “Certainly, we’re not saying that the system is universally bad,” he said.

Dave Hayhurst from Tain, in Highland, went to Govan Law Centre when he and his wife were unable to get their severely disabled son, Alfie-Ray, into what they believed was the best school for him. Alfie-Ray, 6, has autism, sensory processing disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is almost entirely non-verbal. His parents were told just before Christmas that no space was available at the school, but in late February a place materialised after the centre intervened.

“We would fight to the death for our son, but other parents, like single parents, don’t have the time or the energy to get into a battle – I feel very sorry for them,” Mr Hayhurst said.

Monday, 10 March 2014

No evidence to justify discrimination on the grounds of age in the allocation of Scottish social housing

Scottish Housing News has reported today that the Chartered Institute of Housing, SFHA, COSLA, and ALACHO and the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations have rejected claims that allowing social landlords to allocate housing based on age, will not lead to unfair discrimination in the allocation of social housing in Scotland for certain age groups.

The trade bodies for social landlords and local authoritities have rejected claims made by Govan Law Centre, Shelter Scotland, and a number of other national homeless and children charities, that removing the current restriction against taking age into account in the allocation of social housing (in section 20(2) of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987) would lead to young people being unfairly discriminated against in the allocation of social housing.

In dismissing the claims made by Scottish charities who represent the interests of tenants, David Bookbinder of the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland was reported to have said the concerns "were not backed up by evidence" and claimed "this measure will help deal with very specific situations and won’t in any way lead to social landlords ignoring their important duties under the Equality Act 2010. The Bill actually reinforces the requirement for landlords not to unfairly discriminate on the grounds of age".

Govan Law Centre's view is clear. We believe: "There is no independent evidence that removing the ban on taking age into consideration in allocating social housing would serve any useful purpose. Moreover, the Scottish Government did not consult on this proposal, and it appears to have by-passed the normal democratic route for open scrunity in the development of public policy in Scotland".

"We can understand why trade bodies representing social landlords are backing the right of their members to be able to refuse to allocate social housing to a tenant based on age, but unlike them we don't represent the interests of landlords; we only represent the best interests of tenants of all ages. Allowing discrimination based on age is a regressive and unnecessary step in Scottish housing law".

Friday, 21 February 2014

Tribunal finds Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs in contempt of court as Govanhill Law Centre recovers £20,000 in tax credits for client

Govanhill Law Centre - part of the Govan Law Centre Trust - acts on behalf of a number of A8 and A2 nationals in the field of social welfare law. In December 2011 we published a report ‘Unequal and Unlawful Treatment: Barriers faced by the Roma Community in Govanhill when accessing welfare benefits and the implications of section 149 of the Equality Act 2010.’

A particularly difficult case relates to a Slovakian National who has resided in the UK since September 2007.  She is a single parent with two dependant daughters, born July 2002 and April 2004. Our client received tax credits in 2008.  In or around July 2010 tax credits were withdrawn. 

Our client appealed against the decision to terminate payment of tax credits. Correspondence became increasingly protracted, information was sought and supplied by our client, however, HMRC declined payment and continued to request the same information over and over.

HMRC would not accept that our client had qualifying children and repeatedly refused her application for tax credits in spite of birth certificates, national identity cards and letters from the local school confirming the same.  In November 2011 our client was advised that she would receive tax credits, however this was then withdrawn.  Correspondence continued, however no progress was made. 

The opinion of advocate Joe Bryce was sought in an effort to assist this particularly vulnerable client.  There has been chronic maladministration by HMRC, particularly in dealing with A8 Roma. There have been unreasonable information requests, unlawful retention of documents, a presumption of fraudulent behaviour, the imposition of different and unnecessary procedures and inordinate delay.

There was no progress in this case since the April 2012 when an appeal against the March 2012 decision because HMRC has never referred the appeal to the Tribunal.

GhLC solicitor Donna Morgan said: "Counsel was of the view that the client did not need to wait for the HMRC to notify her appeal to the Tribunal; she could do it herself, with our assistance. The Tax Credits Act 2002 permits this unusual approach, so far as we are aware this is the first successful appeal from an individual direct to the tribunal".

"Many direction notices were issued by tribunal services giving HMRC the opportunity to respond, which they failed to do to such an extent that HM Tribunal and Court Services found HMRC in contempt of court".

GhLC caseoworker, Jitka Perinova said: "Shortly thereafter HMRC issued letters confirming that backdated payment would be made from November 2010 to February 2013 would be paid.  Substantial sums totallling almost £20,000 have now been paid to our client improving her quality of life and that of her two children".

Monday, 3 February 2014

GLC statement on the effective abolition of the bedroom tax in Scotland

Govan Law Centre welcomes the recent intervention from the Scottish Government in relation to effectively abolishing the bedroom tax in Scotland. We attended a series of public meetings in 2012 where we called for a prevention of homelessness fund to be created by the Scottish Government and for tenants facing bedroom tax arrears to be prevented from eviction. These were not mutually exclusive and we felt that both measures would protect Scotland's most vulnerable.

Our calls were listened to by Johann Lamont MSP and Humza Yousaf MSP who both agreed to consider our proposals with their respective parties in November 2012. Shelter Scotland furthered the argument for a prevention of homelessness fund by requesting that £50m was found by the Scottish Government in order to plug the gap in peoples ability to pay their rent after their bedroom tax deductions, which Govan Law Centre fully endorsed.

In February 2013 we launched a petition at the Scottish Parliament in order to protect all tenants in social housing from being evicted for the bedroom tax. Our petition was supported by Oxfam, the STUC, Shelter Scotland, Money Advice Scotland and over 5,000 individuals. Many councils across Scotland agreed with our premise and stated they would not evict any tenants who were affected by the bedroom tax. Our petition ultimately took us to Holyrood where we argued for its implementation and was also brought forward by Scottish Labour's Jackie Baillie MSP as a Private Members bill, which also included the demand for a prevention of homelessness fund.
In April 2013 we launched the bedroom tax toolkit available free to download from our website. The  GLC tool is essentially a step by step guide which tells you how to go about appealing any decision made against you with regards to the bedroom tax, to your local authority. GLC's toolkit contains a number of untested legal arguments which tenants can select and insert into a pro forma ‘Dispute Form’. Some of these relate to court challenges taking place in England and Wales, and if these are successful tenants can only benefit from them for past deductions if they have lodged an appeal with their council because of the 'anti-test case rules'.
In March 2013 GLC attended another public meeting on the bedroom tax where much anger and disillusionment was brought to the floor. We were able to advise those in attendance about what could and could not be done from a legal perspective with regards to the bedroom tax. GLC were concerned that a mass campaign on non-payment would develop which in essence could make people lose their homes. Our advice was that if you could pay, then you should, however if you could not afford to and eviction proceedings were brought against you, that we would defend your home in the courts. 
We then felt that we should get out to communities and try to raise awareness of the bedroom tax and what could and could not be done in response to it. Taking our message to the communities of Scotland was vital as there was much confusion and misinformation about the bedroom tax which we felt had to be addressed. It was also essential that we let communities know that there was a way to fight back and defend their homes from the threat of eviction. We informed about our petition, our toolkit, the process of eviction and to answer any technical questions which came about in relation to the bedroom tax as well as dispel some of the myths which were around at the time.
We also attended a rally in Glasgow where 5,000 people marched against the bedroom tax. The march was organised by what went on to become the Scottish Anti Bedroom Tax Federation who continue to offer support to those affected. It was felt by our organisation that if we oppose the bedroom tax then we should also have a presence at the march and were invited to speak to those present.
As the bedroom tax came into existence in April 2013 we became inundated with calls from across the United Kingdom. We directed most callers to our toolkit and helped people to fill them out as best we could, even for those outwith our own catchment area. In many cases we were able to empower families to challenge the bedroom tax when it was in place for them erroneously. We spoke at many conferences across Scotland advising people to challenge their decision through using our toolkit. At this point we have successfully won the first Human Rights Act unlawful discrimination bedroom tax appeal, with many more awaiting tribunal dates.
We would like to thank the Scottish Government for taking this bold step in stopping the most regressive social policy in Scotland since the poll tax. In particular, we are grateful to Jackie Baillie MSP for working tirelessly and securing the right to introduce the Protection from Eviction (Bedroom Tax) (Scotland) Bill. Without the pressure of Jackie's Member's Bill we wouldn't be where we are today.
We would also like to thank those organisations and people who supported our campaign from the beginning whether it is facebook groups, homeless organisation or politicians. With the combined efforts of all campaigners we have convinced the Scottish Government to kick the bedroom tax out of Scotland. Govan Law Centre will continue to watch events with the bedroom tax and we will now move on to our next campaign and hope you will join us in that too.