One phrase that often crops up in relation to anti-social behaviour is that there should be "zero tolerance". Another phrase that I hear frequently is that evictions in social housing for anti-social behaviour "should be a last resort." You can believe one or the other of these, but not both.
Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council were firmly of the "eviction should be a last resort" school. After ten years of harassment during which her tormentors were not evicted Fiona Pilkington committed suicide. The unwillingness of councils and housing associations to evict tenants in such flagrant and serious breach of their tenancy agreements is a scandal. The good news is that in a year's time there should be a new law in force with a "mandatory power of repossession for anti-social behaviour." This will apply where there is already a conviction which proves an offence has taken place – for instance assaulting a neighbour or criminal damage. At present there is a lot of delay and expense in having to go through two cases for the same offence – once for the breach of criminal law and once for eviction for the breach of the tenancy agreement.
The proposed change is:
We are proposing therefore that landlords will be able to apply for possession for anti-social behaviour under a mandatory power where anti-social behaviour or criminal behaviour has already been proven by another court. We will further define the ‘triggers’ for seeking possession under a mandatory power in the light of final Home Office proposals on new tools and powers to be published in due course.
Broadly however we propose these are as follows:
- Conviction for a serious housing related offence – to apply to offences committed by tenants, members of their household or regular visitors which take place in the locality of the property or between neighbours away from it. The type of offences we propose to capture include violence against neighbours; serious criminal damage with violence; drug dealing or cultivation in the property; murder; and rape. We think that ‘indictable only’ offences should broadly capture these.
- Breach of an injunction for anti-social behaviour – given the persistent and/or serious nature of anti-social behaviour which is likely to lead to a court granting an injunction we think it is appropriate that a breach by a tenant, member of their household or regular visitor should provide a trigger for a mandatory power of possession. We propose, to ensure that the anti-social behaviour is housing related, that the mandatory power should only be available where a social landlord has either obtained or is party to the injunction.
- Closure of premises under a closure order – we think that where a court has determined that activity taking place within a property is so serious to merit its closure, it is appropriate that a landlord can seek possession against the tenant using a mandatory power.
That is helpful, especially for the most serious cases. 85% of social landlords have said they will consider using this new power. (Although I am not clear that it would have helped Fiona Pilkington as Leicestershire Police were also useless.)
This still leaves the problem of councils delaying for far too long before starting eviction proceedings. It also still leaves long court delays for evictions where the mandatory power does not apply. Breaking a tenancy agreement is a different matter to breaking the criminal law. If someone urinates in the lift should they be sent to prison? No. Should they be evicted? Yes.
There is also appalling delay in the courts system in securing evictions for "neighbours from hell" for which the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling should feel deeply ashamed. When I was told by officers in my local council that legal proceedings took a year I queried this with the Ministry of Justice. The response was:
Civil Procedure Rule 28.6.2 provides that upon allocation to the fast track the court should attempt to set a trial date or window within 30 weeks of that date. This is a guideline to courts that is intended to ensure that cases are brought to trial in a prompt fashion once the judge has allocated to track.
As you rightly refer in your email, HMCTS has set an internal measure of 50 weeks for the disposal of fast track cases. However, this measure is calculated from the date of issue through to final hearing and allows HMCTS to assess the full length of time that claims remain in the system.
There is a similar measure for the higher value multi track claims which is set at 80 weeks. The figure of 59 weeks mentioned in the e-mail is an average figure taken from all fast track and multi track cases that come to trial in the county courts.
I hope this reassures you that MOJ have not relaxed any of the guidelines for timeliness of cases and that in respect of cases allocated to track we would expect courts to bring cases to trial within 30 weeks wherever possible and that the case from start to finish should take no longer than 50 weeks.
So you have decent, law abiding people, perhaps with young children, living in a council flat. Next door are vile yobs who make their lives a misery. After months or years of dithering and mediating by council housing officers with their "eviction as a last resort" mantra, legal proceedings are started to evict the yobs. Then, with a bit of luck, if it is given a high priority and put on the "fast track" it takes 50 weeks.
Would you think this was good enough if you lived next door to the yobs? Would Mr Grayling?