Lawyers lambast country’s housing law ‘mess’, as death toll from Grenfell fire confirmed at 71

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By Katie King on

New legislation is needed, Bristol and Kent academics conclude

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A team of academics from Bristol Law School and Kent Law School have concluded the law relating to health and safety in people’s homes is “piecemeal, out-dated, complex, dependent upon tenure, and patchily enforced”. A new piece of legislation is needed.

The report was commissioned by homelessness charity Shelter in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which today we learnt killed a total of 71 people. It was written by David Cowan and Edward Burtonshaw-Gunn, from Bristol, and Helen Carr and Edward Kirton-Darling, from Kent, who attempt to address the gaps in current housing legislation.

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Various laws govern health and safety in housing, the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, the Housing Act 2004 and the Deregulation Act 2015 being just some of the examples given. However, the authors along with 85% of professionals who were surveyed as part of the study conclude that the law is currently not fit for purpose.

Why? The 25-page report says:

“[T]he law regarding the state and condition of property is in a mess. It is old and out of date; it does not provide appropriate remedies for modern concerns; its enforcement is variable; and, at least some of it is of symbolic value only.”

In its place, the academics recommend the introduction of a Housing (Health and Safety in the Home) Act, a piece of law that treats occupiers “as consumers of housing with enforceable rights to ensure minimum standards are adhered to”.

The current “piecemeal and incoherent” law is hardly helped out by confusion over its various “regulators” (the state, private landlords, judges, etc) holding “overlapping powers and responsibilities”. The authors think the state needs to accept its role as a primary enforcer of the standards set by the new legislation it recommends, commenting:

“The state has a legitimate role in protecting consumers of housing. It has been the goal of government housing policy since the Second World War that people should be entitled to a decent home within their means. That has always been a cross-party aim. That policy goal has not been facilitated by the law and its enforcement.”

Big chunks of the report are also dedicated to the provision of legal aid in housing law.

Days after the horrendous Grenfell fire, it was revealed the tower’s residents had tried to obtain legal advice over safety concerns, but were prevented from doing so due to devastating cuts to legal aid.

Pilgrim Tucker, who has worked with the local campaign organisation Grenfell Action Group, said: “[Residents] can’t afford lawyers. They tried to get lawyers but because of the legal aid cuts they couldn’t get lawyers.”

The unavailability of legal aid has two particular effects in this context, Cowan and co argue.

The first is that in individual cases, legal aid has “largely disappeared”, particularly in disrepair matters. Secondly, the decline of legal aid for housing has led to “advice deserts”, with some areas of the country experiencing “a dearth of solicitors with housing contracts for legal aid”.

The position we’re in now isn’t sustainable. The report says:

“In our view, the health and safety of occupiers should not depend on tenure, class, or the history of housing policy. It should be designed to protect the health and safety of all occupiers.”

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