A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The case of the case – or, you never can tell …
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TRO) work for local council’s providing advice on landlord tenant law and investigating allegations of harassment and Illegal Eviction and prosecuting landlords. All names are false but the stories are true.
The other day I was walking out of my local County Court having won a case that I didn’t think I stood an earthly with and I mused, not for the first time, on the vagaries of District Judges and their decisions.
I was there to help a woman whose bank was seeking a possession order for mortgage arrears. She was waiting for the outcome of another, unrelated court case that would clear the arrears if successful.
She had already had 5 adjournments and I wasn’t hopeful of getting a 6th and was predicting, accurately as it turned out, that the bank’s solicitor would be asking for an outright possession order after 5 unsuccessful court hearings and the arrears still going up by the day.
I figured my best bet would be to ask for a suspended possession order. That way the bank would be happy because they had their order and I would have the time I would need to negotiate with the bank. I nice compromise decision for the judge.
Introducing Mr Cocky
The bank’s solicitor turned out to be a very cocky young man who seemed intent on trying to play daft mind games to shake our confidence and put the fear of god into me and my poor woman. I thought, “This man has been watching too much Derren Brown”. You have to go to court a lot as a TRO, and although a non-lawyer I can usually hold my own, just through sheer experience as I am in court at least 4 or 5 times a month on solely housing related matters.
He railed against my suggestion of a 6th adjournment, saying there was no way in the world a judge would agree to that but said he would be prepared to agree to a Suspended Possession Order. I thought this strange as a solicitor usually can’t negotiate like that. They are there on instruction and often quietly agree with me that their clients are being unreasonable but this guy seemed to be going solo.
The client was none too hopeful of a 6th adjournment either and so we said we didn’t have a problem with a suspended order. However, as we were about to go into the court the usher turned around and said “We’re just turning the recording on”. Mr Cocky suddenly looked horrified and turned around at the door and hissed to me “I didn’t know it was being recorded. I can’t be heard to agree to the suspended order, I’ll have to ask for an outright order, so you ask for a suspended but I won’t fight that hard to defend it”.
I thought “You cheeky little sod” and said to him that all bets were off and I asked for another adjournment instead although I secretly guessed we would come out with a suspended order anyway. I just didn’t want to give him the satisfaction…
What I didn’t allow for was his lack of experience. I learned in my first few court appearances that no matter how badly things are going for you, never lose it with the judge and certainly never tell a judge what they should do or think. That bit seemed to pass this fella by and he was virtually jumping out of his suit to win the case and bad mouth me and the woman I was helping.
The judge picked up on this and began leaning towards a 6th adjournment. The solicitor could see this coming too and started to tell the judge how inappropriate he was being and even wrong at law. Well you can almost see the judge rising up in his chair at this point and he came down decidedly on the side of an adjournment.
Mr Cocky said “But sir, the over-riding objective of the court is…….” But Judge Williams cut him off saying loudly “The overriding objective of the court is Justice Mr Shah”. Which shut him up. We got our 6th adjournment.
When we got outside his response was “I’ve had that one before and he is anti-Muslim”. My professionalism wavered at this point reader and I laughed and said “Nah you just got shafted, that’s all”.
Another surprise result
Another surprise result happened back in March this year, although I nearly had heart failure in the process.
A bank had an outright order against Mrs Pippin. I had been negotiating with them for 7 months and getting nowhere despite the fact that the solicitor had hidden information from the original trial judge about another aspect of Mrs Pippin’s income that would have allowed the judge to suspend the possession order.
Mrs Pippin and I had discussed the case. I had run it by our council’s legal department in a 2 hour meeting and it was agreed I would go to court and apply to have the possession order set aside.
However, as we sat in the waiting area the lawyer for the bank, the polar opposite of Mr Cocky in her professionalism, calmly and coolly gave me her written skeleton argument which showed to my absolute horror that under the Civil Procedure Rules we weren’t allowed to make the application, on a technicality that there isn’t space to go into here.
I explained this to poor Mrs Pippin and she saw the argument and said “We’d better pray for natural justice and a Judge Judy then”. I sympathised but said it didn’t work like that in the real world. Justice in this case had nothing to do with it. We were blocked by a simple but very clearly written court rule.
As we went in I was about to apologise to the judge for the cock up but the judge had been studying my case notes before we went in and as I sat down he asked me to look at paragraph 25 of my witness statement. I did. It concerned the arrears. He asked me what the arrears were at that point. I honestly answered that I didn’t know because I had asked the bank for an update 2 weeks before and they had not supplied one.
He then turned on the poor solicitor saying in a genuinely angry voice “Why the bloody hell are you here Miss James?” he then launched into a tirade about the amount of negotiations I had attempted to have with her client only to be blocked at every turn.
She was shaken for a while but, fair to her, she managed to recover enough to go onto her main point that the court rules prevented us from making the application. Judge Judy spat back at her “Yes I’m well aware of your argument and I’m not interested” and he actually threw her skeleton argument back on her desk. He made her leave the court and phone the bank to answer his questions.
Three more calls were made before the judge was satisfied and we left court with the bank agreeing to back off and capitalise Mrs Pippin’s arrears. Case done, home saved but you could have knocked me down with a feather.
Mrs Pippin and I had to go to Starbucks and have a large Latte to recover from the rollercoaster ride that had been our previous 3 hours.
Give it a go
When I am training housing officers in possession proceedings I always tell course participants that there is no such thing as an open and shut case in the county court. Decisions vary depending on the mood of the judge, whether or not they like your client, their irritability levels, and I suspect, whether your case is dragging on unexpectedly and preventing them from getting off early to the golf course.
I have learned one valuable lesson for non-lawyers doing a court case. Have a go, even if it looks dead in the water.
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a TRO and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more. Read more about Ben here.