Monday, 15 December 2014

Back to the future? Scottish private sector tenancy reforms would leave tenants in a worse position than those in 1980

Govan Law Centre (GLC) has expressed dismay that the Scottish Government's proposed private sector tenancy reforms are considerably more regressive for tenants than the then Conservative Government’s introduction of the short assured tenancy in Scotland some 34 years ago.

The Government's proposals are set out in its document, 'Consultation on a new tenancy for the private sector'. The proposals appear progressive at first glance, with the suggestion of abolishing the 'no-fault ground' for eviction in short assured tenancies, however, when one reads further it becomes apparent the provision of greater security of tenure for tenants is wholly illusory as the Scottish Government set out eight new mandatory grounds of eviction that would enable landlords to choose to evict on the flimsiest of reasons.

In GLC's response to the consultation response we argue that the mandatory repossession grounds undermine the entire policy exercise:

In relation to rent arrears, the proposed ground 6 (three months’ arrears of rent) is in direct conflict with the will of the Scottish Parliament in legislating in the Homelessness etc., (Scotland) Act 2003 to provide a reasonableness defence for the current three months arrears of rent (ground 8, schedule 5, Housing (Scotland) Act 1988). Where is the evidence now that this defence should be repealed in relation to rent arrears which may be due to housing benefit errors or delays."

"The proposed new mandatory grounds 1 to 3 are couched in very weak language: the use of the word ‘want’ sets the bar very low. For example, it would not be necessary to provide evidence that a house was being marketed for sale, or that the mortgage lender had required a sale to repay the lending secured over the property.  Instead, all that would be required to evict a tenant in the private sector is that the landlord ‘wanted’ to move back in, or sell, or that their lender wanted to sell. In other words, there would be no need to establish an actual sale was taking place or that the landlord really did need to and was moving back into the property".

"Ground 4 is even more open to exploitation by landlords to the detriment of tenants: all that a landlord need say is that he or she intended to ‘refurbish’ to evict a tenant/family. What is ‘refurbish’? It might never materialise, or indeed it could be as little as painting a wall or installing a new sink. Why should this be a mandatory ground of eviction?"

"Ground 7 makes provision for a mandatory ground of repossession for ‘anti-social behaviour’. If the anti-social behaviour was a symptom of an illness or behaviour that had since been modified why should the tenant be subject to mandatory repossession? The requirement on the court to consider reasonableness is an essential requirement to ensure fairness and justice."

"Ground 8 enables a mandatory ground of eviction where the tenant has otherwise breached the tenancy agreement. Without the common sense protection of a defence of ‘reasonableness’ will tenants be evicted for the most minor contractual breaches?

Finally, we note PRS evictions will no longer be dealt with by the Sheriff Court and instead will be dealt with by the First Tier PRS Tribunal. This change in policy (for reasons of cost savings) does concern us because losing the roof over your head is such an important issue that it should be dealt with by an experienced and more senior judge.  We also question how can PRS Tribunals be seen to be genuinely impartial when their chairs are often part-time judges employed or engaged by landlords in private practice to undertake eviction actions?"

Monday, 1 December 2014

Govan Law Centre welcomes FCA clamp down on payday loan 'brokers'

Govan Law Centre (GLC) has welcomed the Financial Conduct Authority's (FCA) new consumer credit rules for payday loan credit brokers as an essential measure to tackle the exploitation of consumers from a new breed of credit brokers  (the new rules will form part of the CONC rulebook with effect from 2 January 2015).

Customers across the UK looking for a payday loan online are regularly duped into thinking the company they are giving all of their personal information to is a payday loan company, when in fact it is a 'broker' who will typically charge a fee of £50 to £100 for passing on the customer's details to multiple third parties, who then often impose charges themselves.

GLC's Principal Solicitor, Mike Dailly said: "We believe payday loan brokers have been ripping people off for far too long in the UK. They mislead consumers into thinking they are the loan provider when in fact all they do is pass on data to the detriment of people who are then subjected to a series of unexpected charges taken from their bank account without informed consent, often from multiple third parties. We are confident the rules will protect most consumers - as once customers know the broker is proposing to charge them the equivalent of money for old rope, they will avoid these exploitative middlemen". 
Since July this year the Royal Bank of Scotland has reported that payday loan brokers have attempted to take money out of their customers accounts more than 1 million times - with 25,000 being successful - netting £1.1m, as against £60m if all attempts had been successful - for RBS/Natwest customers alone.  
The new FCA rules will ban credit brokers from charging fees to customers, and from requesting customers’ payment details for that purpose, unless they comply with new requirements ensuring that customers are given clear information about who they are dealing with, what fee will be payable, and when and how the fee will be payable.                                                 
The FCA’s concerns relate to:
  • a lack of transparency, resulting in consumers often not realising they are dealing with a broker rather than a lender;
  • fees being taken without informed consent, for example where terms and conditions are hidden or misleading;
  • consumers being misled as to the purpose of giving their payment details;
  • firms passing on consumers’ details, including their payment details, without informed consent, to other firms who also take a fee; and
  • consumers facing difficulty in identifying the firm that has taken a fee, and in obtaining a refund from the firm or a response to their complaint.
Thew new rules will also require credit brokers to:
  • include their legal name, not just their trading name, in all advertising and other communications with customers;
  • state prominently in all advertising that they are a credit broker and not a lender; and
  • report quarterly to the FCA listing their website domain names, if they charge fees to customers.
Consumers will also have a 14-day right of cancellation where credit broking contracts are entered into as distance contracts, for example online.
Over 40 per cent of consumer credit complaints received by the FCA relate to credit brokers, 80 per cent of which relate to firms who charge upfront fees. The FCA has also received relevant intelligence from consumer groups and others who are seeing increasing complaints from people who have had money taken from their accounts unexpectedly and often by more than one broker.
The FCA is investigating a number of credit broking firms; seven firms have been stopped from taking on new business and, to date, three further cases have been referred for enforcement action.


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Ombudsman writes £100,000 off on 'irresponsible' loan secured on Glasgow couple's home

A Glasgow couple who borrowed £20,000 on a APR of 16.2% over 40 years - at a whopping total cost of almost £124,000 - have been successful in arguing that their lender failed to undertake a proper affordability check, had overridden its own lending criteria, and irresponsibly sold an unaffordable product to the couple, which was secured on their home.

The couple, respresented by Govan Law Centre, could not pursue a claim against their independent financial advisor (IFA) firm, which had since folded, and the lender sought to hold the IFA responsible for any failing. The Ombudsman held that 'I did not consider that White Label had properly assessed how the loan would be affordable so far into Mr and Mrs C's retirement'. The Ombudsman ordered the lender to release the couple from the current loan agreement, effectively writing-off £100,000 in terms of the secured loan agreement.

The couple's solicitor, GLC's Mike Dailly said: "This is a fantastic result for our clients who would have otherwise been looking at repossession. It raises two important principles; first, that a lender is ultimately responsible for their own product and cannot always avoid liability by pointing to a third party financial advisor who sold their product as an intermediary, and secondly, a lender has to adhere to its own lending criteria and make sufficient enquiries to assess affordability".

The Ombudsman's Final Decision is here.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Govan Law Centre participates in UK launch of the Justice First Fellowship - opportunities for legal traineeships for those committed to social justice and social welfare law

Justice First Fellowship is a prestigious new Scheme established to support the next generation of students in the UK committed to public interest and social justice issues who want to pursue a career in social welfare law. The Scheme has been established by The Legal Education Foundation, in partnership with Govan Law Centre and other organisations in the social welfare law sector.

Govan Law Centre is one of seven organisations in the UK participating in the Justice First Fellowship, other partners include Coram Children's Legal Centre, Coventry Law Centre, Deighton Pierce Glynn, Greater Manchester Immigration Unit, Staffordshire North and Stoke on Trent Citizens Advice Bureaux, and the Public Law Project.

This is the first year of the Scheme, and it will focus on law graduates that have passed the Legal Practice Course or Diploma in Professional Legal Practice and are seeking to complete their training contract before taking up a role in social welfare law. The aim is that the Fellowship Scheme will come to be seen as a respected route to a career in this important area of law, with Fellows going on to become leaders in their field and important advocates for access to justice and the rule of law.

In 2014, the Fellowship has three parts. To provide:
1.      Training contract placements for law graduates seeking to pursue a career in social welfare law;
2.      Fellows with time and resource alongside their traineeships to develop and implement a project that will advance access to justice in some way;
3.      Additional support, training and opportunities for Fellows to gain skills and feel part of a wider movement of people committed to access to justice.

For more information and how to apply please visit the Justice First Fellowship website here; please note that applications cannot be made until Monday 8 September 2014, when the application process goes live.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Glasgow tenant with learning disabilities wins bedroom tax appeal with help from Govan Law Centre

Govan Law Centre (GLC) has secured a successful appeal at the First Tier Tribunal in an unusual case. Our client has learning disabilities and experiences a high level of anxiety. She has lived in her tenancy for some years and has an essential support network in her local area.

Agencies involved with our client were of the opinion that to move home would cause her extreme distress and be detrimental to her health. Our client is unable to deal with paperwork and benefits did not understand the concept of the underoccupancy charge or the process of applying for discretionary housing payments. Our client had accrued rent arrears  before she accessed support to secure discretionary assistance and this had caused her to experience high levels of anxiety.
In addition, being advised that discretionary housing payments were not guaranteed and had to re-applied for caused her great distress. It was recognised that our client did not have a specific need for an additional bedroom. She said herself she did not ask for an extra bedroom when she was allocated her tenancy and suggested that she would board it up if this would stop her being charged for this room.

Rather our client had a specific need, due to her disabilities to remain in her current home. It was an irrefutable reality that she was unable to detach her ‘spare’ room from her home, Our client's need to remain in her current accommodation, due to her disabilities and health needs were not considered by the bedroom tax regulation.
We submitted that this was discrimination against our client and that the provision of discretionary housing payments did not temper this discrimination in our client’s case. We asked that the local authority made additional no discretionary payment for our client so as to comply with their Public Sector Equality duties. This was accepted by the Tribunal.  The client was represented by Claire Findlay, welfare rights and financial inclusion officer with GLC's Prevention of Homelessness Project.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Up to £10m could be refunded to Scottish homeowners for 'unfairly charged' legal expenses

GLC is today publishing a successful decision of the Financial Ombudsman Service where our client, a Scottish homeowner, obtained a refund of £1,500 from Santander UK plc with respect to half of the legal expenses he was charged in a mortgage repossession case.

The legal background
The case concerns a lender who had raised mortgage repossession proceedings in Scotland where the borrower had got into arrears of his mortgage but the case had to be dismissed from court as it was incompetent standing the ruling of the UK Supreme Court in RBS v. Wilson [2010] UKSC 50. The lender then had to re-raise proceedings in court.

The legal expenses for the incompetent case came to £3,000, and the Ombudsman has ruled that it was neither the borrower or lender's fault the case had to be dismissed following the UK Supreme Court decision which changed what everyone understood the law to be, and 'it seems fair, under the circumstances, for the cost to be shared'.

In paragraph 18  (opens as PDF) of the CML's response to the Scottish Government's consultation on the RBS v. Wilson case, the CML estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 repossession actions were dismissed in Scotland as incompetent, standing Wilson. Taking an average expenses figure of £1,500, we may be looking at a figure of £7.5m due to be refunded to consumers in Scotland based on the attached Ombudsman's decision.

And there are then the cases dismissed as incompetent following Govan Law Centre's (GLC) NRAM v. Millar and RBS v McConnell 2012 SLT (Sh Ct) 58 test cases, in relation to a failure to comply with the Pre-Action Requirement statutory provisions.

We are not sure of the approximate number of cases dismissed because of these cases but the number is not insignificant. Again, applying the rationale of the attached Ombudsman's decision we may be looking at around £3m, producing an overall figure of in the region of £10m of costs which consumers in Scotland may be able to have refunded.

What does this mean for you?
If you were taken to court for mortgage repossession in the last few years and the court proceedings had to be dismissed or re-raised on competency grounds, then you may well be affected by this issue, and may entitled to a refund of at least 50% of the legal expenses in one of those cases. You can speak to your solicitor or advisor to check whether you may be able to claim.

If you already think you are affected by this issue then you can write to lender asking for a refund yourself - here is an illustrative letter (keep a copy of this letter too for your own records and in case you need to prove you made a complaint).

Your lender has 8 weeks to deal with your complaint, and if they are unwilling to offer you a refund you can then make a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service, details on how to do so are set out here:

* For the sake of completeness, GLC did invite the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) and its members to make arrangements for voluntary refunds, where appropriate, but this suggestion was declined by the CML who insisted that their members were entitled to recover full legal expenses even where incompetent legal proceedings had been raised and were required to be dimissed by the court.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

GLC recruitment opportunity for an Additional Support Needs Caseworker

Additional Support Needs Caseworker (funded by the Scottish Government).
£24,738 per annum
34 hours per week
Contract : Fixed Term until 31 March 2017

As part of the Let’s Talk ASN national advocacy service (delivered in partnership with Kindred), you will provide advocacy and support to parents and young people with educational issues that may require to be determined by the Additional Support Needs Tribunals for Scotland.  Experience in working with children and young people with additional support needs and their families and in advocacy in a Tribunal context highly desirable.

CV and covering letter to Govan Law Centre, 18-20 Orkney Street, Glasgow G51 2BZ or
Deadline: 4pm on 18 June 2014.  Job and person specification (opens as a PDF).


Saturday, 3 May 2014

The bedroom tax won't be scrapped in Scotland unless we stop excluding severely disabled tenants from Discretionary Housing Payments

As many media outlets report today, the Scottish Parliament is to be given new devolved powers to remove the cap on Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs), with many commentators suggesting this will mean "the bedroom tax will be scrapped in Scotland". Sadly, that is not the case.

The reality is many local authorities across Scotland 'means test' DHPs, which perversely results in severely disabled tenants being excluded from DHPs because their disability benefits are taken into account when their disposable income is assessed. Why should disabled tenants have to pay the bedroom tax from their disability benefits? Govan Law Centre (GLC) believes this is wrong, both as a matter of legal principle and in terms of fairness.

For example, this week in GLC's two successful bedroom tax First Tier Tribunal appeals, both tenants had been refused DHPs by their local authority because they were in receipt of Disability Living Allowance.

Why should Scottish local authorities stop taking disability benefits into account when assessing eligibility for DHPs?

We can do no better than quote Lord Justice Maurice Kay from the leading English Court of Appeal case of Burnip and others v. The Secretary of State for Works and Pensions [2012] EWCA Civ 629 (at para 45):

"First, I think it is necessary to draw a clear distinction between the benefits which Mr Burnip was entitled to claim for his subsistence, and those which he was entitled to claim in respect of his housing needs. His incapacity benefit and disability living allowance were intended to meet (or help to meet) his ordinary living expenses as a severely disabled person. They were not intended to help with his housing needs ... It would therefore be wrong in principle, in my judgment, to regard Mr Burnip's subsistence benefits as being notionally available to him to go towards meeting the shortfall between his housing- related benefits and the rent he had to pay".

Disabled people need disability benefits to meet their extra living costs by reason of their disability. Taking disability benefits into account as disposable income is wrong as a matter of not just legal principle but also as a matter of basic fairness and equity. 

GLC is calling upon the Scottish Government to work with the UK Government to make sure it has the power not only to set the cap for DHPs, but if it wants to scrap the bedroom tax it has to ensure it has the power to require all local authorities in Scotland to stop excluding severely disabled tenants from DHPs because they receive disability benefits.

Friday, 2 May 2014

First Tier Tribunal rules that dining rooms were not 'under-occupied' bedrooms for Glasgow tenants

Govan Law Centre (GLC) has been successful in arguing that tenants who used a 'bedroom' as a dining room should not be subject to an under-occupation (commonly known as 'the bedroom tax') deduction from their housing benefit entitlement.

In the case of 'E', the tenant has used her downstairs 'bedroom' as a dining room since the commencement of her tenancy in 2007. It had never been used as a bedroom. Her kitchen was too small to be used for dining purposes.

The appellant's solicitor, Mike Dailly of GLC, argued that as the term 'bedroom' was not defined in the Housing Benefit Regulations the word had to be interpreted in relation to its ordinary meaning, and in particular having regard to the actual facts and circumstances of the appellant's case, including her actual useage.

The respondent, Glasgow City Council, argued that regard should be had to the fact that three of the property's rooms could be occupied as bedrooms, notwithstanding on the evidence the appellant had not chosen to occupy one of them as such.

The Tribunal found that 'The appellant's use of the downstairs room as a dining room is long established and reasonably necessary for her use of the property', and allowed the tenant's appeal.

In the case of 'L', the tenant was the sole occupant of a 4 bedroomed property since 1997 and had always used the downstairs 'bedroom' as a dining room and as a storage space for her electric mobility scooter, manual wheelchair and walker.  The Tribunal found on the evidence that 'the use of the downstairs room as a dining room and also for storage of [the appellant's] disability equipment is long established and reasonably necessary for her use of the property', and allowed the tenant's appeal. 

Housing benefit would be backdated from 1 April 2013.  Copies of the Decision Notice in both cases are available as a PDF here.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Housing (Scotland) Bill must be amended to protect tenants and prevent homelessness in Scotland

This week the Housing (Scotland) Bill received approval at Stage 1 in the Scottish Parliament, however, Govan Law Centre believes the bill contains some regressive and unnecessary provisions, but most of all is a missed opportunity to provide meaningful protection for tenants, especially in the private rented sector, and prevent needless homelessness in Scotland.

We believe the bill can be amended to deliver real protection and positive change for Scottish citizens, and we will be working with MSPs across all political parties to try and achieve this. In addition, we believe more research and work is required to resolve some particularly acute housing problems in Scotland, which we have identified. Below is a summary of our calls, which are more fully set out in our Parliamentary Briefing on the Housing (Scotland) Bill available here as a PDF. If you support any of these calls, please write to your local MSP(s) and ask them to support them please.

1  Age/Allocation
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 scrutiny in the development of public policy in Scotland. GLC hope to work with MSPs to bring forward an amendment to protect young persons from less favourable treatment in the allocation of housing by reason of their age.

2  Tenancy Support/Prevention of Homelessness
When a family or person becomes homeless there are support services put in place in order to help them through their homelessness journey. At GLC we do provide excellent interventions in relation to stopping evictions across Glasgow however we feel that there is more which can be done to help stave off homelessness. Govan Law Centre believes there is considerable scope for requiring local authorities and registered social landlords to support and facilitate access to independent sources of advice and support for their tenants not only prior to court action but also during court proceedings. We believe such duties should be backed up by primary legislation.

3  Private Landlord Registration (PLR)
The PLR scheme is a registration facility for private landlords. Currently it would appear that their main focus appears to be about registration with almost no enforcement powers at their disposal. Most PRS landlords that come to GLC attention are in fact registered but this does not modify their behaviour in acting poorly as a landlord with many cases showing they at times act illegally.  We believe there is scope for a national statutory body to be given additional powers and resources to regulate and better enforce and co-ordinate the PRS. It would be possible to give such a role to an existing national statutory body in Scotland in order to minimise cost implications.  However, we believe our suggestion would ultimately lead to major cost savings on the public purse by preventing unlawful activity and homelessness in the PRS.

4  Private Rented Sector
We also believe that private rents are excessively high for tenants, particularly if they are on low or modest incomes. The rights of private sector tenants need to be strengthened. The Scottish Government should carry out a review of the PRS in Scotland with a focus on unaffordable housing, and tenancy arrangements which create instability for those who are living with Short Assured Tenancies.

5  Recording those who disappear from the system
The most recent report on homelessness carried out by the Scottish government show that between 9%-10% of all applications "lost contact before assessment, withdrew or were ineligible". GLC would like to see these figures recorded in a more accurate way so that a true picture of those who lose contact is recorded.  GLC calls on the Scottish Government to carry out a review on this matter urgently so that local authorites are not failing in their statutory obligations, and vulnerable people do not lose out in relation to their statutory rights.

6  Private Hostels
Many of our most vulnerable and chaotic citizens are stuck living in very poor conditions in private hostels. Such establishments are well known to those who live in Glasgow, particularly those who work in homelessness and it is a Victorian response to a homelessness problem in 2014. GLC calls on the Scottish Government to use the current Housing Bill to introduce a scheme of registration and regulation for these types of private hostels. At present these hostels do not come under the Care Commission’s remit. We think they should. This would drive up standards in the sector, and ensure that those who were not fit to run such establishments were unable to do so. 


Thursday, 24 April 2014

GLC publish free schools 'Placing Request Appeal Toolkit' for parents and young people in Scotland

Govan Law Centre's Education Law Unit has published a 'Placing Request Appeal Toolkit' as a free self-help guide for parents and young people in Scotland who are not happy with a decision from their local council in relation to a school placing request.

The GLC self-help toolkit provides a step-by-step guide on how to challenge a council's decision, how to make an appeal to a local authority Education Appeal Committee, how the procedure operates, and explains the different types of arguments, providing an illustrative appeal letter, and where to go for additional legal help.

Please note GLC does not have the resources to undertake mainstream placing request appeals, as its Educational Law Unit is focused on cases involving children and young people with additional support needs. The guide was written by GLC's education law solicitors Iain Nisbet and Sarah-Jane Kissock. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Scottish campaign launched for the first African law centre

TWO WELL-KNOWN SCOTTISH SOLICITORS have launched a campaign to raise funds to create the first community law centre in Africa.

Govan Law Centre’s Mike Dailly and past Law Society of Scotland President Austin Lafferty, want to see Scotland’s successful law centre model help provide access to justice and drive positive social change in Africa, with the first centre operating in Bamenda, the capital of the North West Region of Cameroon.

Human Rights Commissioner in Cameroon, Ms Laura Anyola Tufon said: “This project will be a life time reward to our poverty-stricken, legally uneducated and destitute populations in demand for justice. It will help curb corruption to a remarkable level as the target populations will be knowledgeable to work to uphold human rights and abusers will be brought to justice. My dream of rights conscious citizens and peace abiding people with ambition to contribute to sustainable development and make life worth living may be met in my life time”.

Mike Dailly said: “I’ve already undertaken an extensive scoping project in Cameroon and helped secure initial funding for a Child Protection Unit from the British High Commission in Yaoundé, operated by local justice activists in Bamenda. That project helped reunite victims of human trafficking with their families. Child and adult trafficking in Cameroon is most prevalent in the North West Region of the country.  The law centre would help tackle human trafficking, secure criminal prosecutions, recover unpaid wages and protect the rights of women and children”.

Austin Lafferty said“There is an overwhelming need and widespread national support for a community law centre in Bamenda. Scottish solicitors have trail blazed legal remedies and campaigns which have benefited Scots, and I’d like to see those successes replicated in Africa. The project would provide a pilot to demonstrate the value of the model with a view to securing repetition in the country, continued funding from alternative sources, and the viability of law centres being deployed in other sub-Saharan African countries”.

The service would be supervised by the co-ordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission in the North West Region, Ms Laura Anyola Tufon, who is also a Human Rights Commissioner in Cameroon. It would be supported and independently audited by Govan Law Centre. This is a bold project with the ability to lead to transformational social change locally, nationally, and much further afield if successful outcomes can be evidenced and demonstrated.


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.


Friday, 31 January 2014

GLC welcomes Welfare Reform Committee's report and renews its 2012 call for £50m to neutralise the bedroom tax in Scotland

Govan Law Centre welcomes the Scottish Welfare Reform Committee’s statement on the unfairness of the bedroom tax. At Govan Law Centre we see those affected by the bedroom tax on a daily basis and are currently fighting for our clients to stay in their home.

The Scottish Parliament should be given more powers and resources in order to mitigate the bedroom tax however we feel that currently the Scottish Parliament has the ability to legislate creatively in order to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax on the Scottish people. 

Our call from November 2012 for a prevention of homelessness fund to be created, supported by Shelter in February 2013 asking for a £50m fund is one way we feel the Scottish Parliament could utilise their current powers. A recent petition in the Scottish Parliament backed this position and we hope that it is successful. 

Of course the best way to stop this regressive housing policy is to scrap the bedroom tax in its entirety and that this power lies with Westminster and we join the Committee in calling for the Westminster Government to call an end to the bedroom tax.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Housing (Scotland) Bill fails to meet the needs of homeless Scots, young people and those suffering from mental health problems

GLC's Garry Burns (right); Paul Brown, Legal Services Agency;
Michael Clancy, Law Society of Scotland
Govan Law Centre (GLC) were invited to give evidence to the Infrastructure and Investment Committee this week (22 January 2014) in relation to the proposed Housing (Scotland) Bill (a BBC video of the Parliamentary evidence session can be viewed here: )

GLC advised the committee that although Glasgow was unique in Scotland with regards to its homelessness problems that the figures for the rest of Scotland don’t tell the true story. That the problem with hidden homelessness (that is homelessness that is not officially recorded) is an issue across the whole country.
In our view, the consultation process had to be far more thorough and inclusive as there was no input from people who were vulnerable or at a disadvantage, nor were there any consultations with young people or young people’s organisations.
Adjusting the “reasonable preference” in the manner put forward by the Bill's policy would be to the detriment of future applicants for social housing. By not awarding those who are living in overcrowded conditions or are living in intolerable standards, reasonable preference families will suffer. RSL's are charities, who have enjoyed significant public subsidy, and as such have an obligation to society, one of those obligations should be to offer tenancies to those who are living in houses which don't meet the tolerable standard. 
RSL’s having more power in suspending peoples housing applications for previous misdemeanors in housing for an undefined period would in our view be an erosion of a housing applicants rights.  The extension of powers for RSL’s to convert tenancies into SSST is giving RSL’s too much power over their tenants. There doesn't appear to be any significant evidence for further erosion of tenants’ rights. ASBO are a serious matter and the rights of all tenants have to be met, however essentially tripling the length of time through which a family or individual has to have a very real and serious threat of eviction over their head is not something we feel should be in this Housing Bill.
In relation to private landlords, GLC believe that far too often police do not take action on unlawful evictions and action should be taken to resolve this issue. Where landlords have carried out illegal evictions which is a criminal offence, GLC would like to see serious repercussions for such actions. This could include empowering private landlord registration scheme operating in local authorities to have more powers of enforcement than they currently have. There is also to possibility that criminal charges can be brought against landlords who commit crimes when evicting tenants.
We also believe that private rents are excessively high for tenants, particularly if they are on low or modest incomes. The Scottish Government should carry out a review into private sector rents and use their powers to curb rents which are unaffordable to those on low or modest incomes. By creating fairer rents there would also be a significant saving to the taxpayer if the tenant is on benefits which pay for their housing.
Govan Law Centre is grateful to have been invited to give evidence the committee and hope that our recommendations are considered and implemented. If the intention of the Scottish Government is to enact housing policy that is more socially just for all, then the Bill as it stands is very far from achieving this. Far more research and consulting has to be done with those who are hit hard by high rents and are excluded from social housing. The Bill thus far mostly seems to fit the needs of RSL's at the expense of tenants and potential tenants.