Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights promises the right to respect for private and family life and home for all, unless such an interference is necessary in a democratic society for, amongst other things, the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
It might be considered that a legally entrenched right to home would provide a lot of scope for defences to possession proceedings. Although the English courts have accepted that article 8 applies to councils, housing associations, and to courts when considering possession proceedings, they have so far taken the caveats very seriously and limited the circumstances in which article 8 can be used in defending possession proceedings to exceptional cases where residents are very vulnerable.
Anthony Gold recently brought a case which sought to widen the scope of article 8 when defending possession proceedings to actions by landlords which are disproportionate or unreasonable, regardless of the particular vulnerabilities of the resident.
The residents of Carlton Mansions approached us in April 2013. They were short-life occupants of a Victorian mansion block, and a Co-op. Although they were known as short-lifers, as the London Borough of Lambeth’s intention when letting the block to the Co-op was that the residents would not be there for long, some of them had lived there for over 30 years. Lambeth had been in talks with the residents before they approached us about the future of the Co-op. It had been decided that the Co-op would be allowed to stay in their homes until the Somerlyton Road regeneration project in the centre of Brixton began, at which time the residents would be moved on with help from Lambeth and Carlton Mansions would be used as a theatre. There was no specific timeframe for this at that stage, but it was generally mooted that it would take 12 – 18 months, and understood that it could be far longer.
The Co-op approached Anthony Gold because Lambeth had tried to evict them by way of an injunction with only a few days’ notice after deciding that Carlton Mansions was a fire risk. Lambeth had tried to evict residents of many years, who had previously been told that they could stay at least an extra year, with very little notice and no discussion. The Co-op had worked with Lambeth in the past regarding works to their building, the re-development project and when housing homeless people applying to Lambeth in Carlton Mansions. They were therefore shocked by this extreme course of action and lack of consultation. Although the building did not meet modern fire standards, it had always been in this state, nothing new had happened. In addition to seeking possession, Lambeth were seeking use and occupation charges from the residents, a weekly charge for their residence there, despite the fact that the residents paid rent to the Co-op and the Co-op had been given a free license to the building by Lambeth, who at the time were unable to let it to anyone else.
Although most of the residents were not particularly vulnerable, and so might not have been traditionally considered to have an article 8 defence, Anthony Gold defended the claim on human rights grounds. We argued that Lambeth’s actions were not proportionate, and considering the parties’ shared history of working together and expectation that the Co-op would remain in situ until redevelopment, the proportionate response would be to work with the Co-op so that the Co-op could make the building fire-safe. The alternative would be many residents with nowhere to go, the loss of a community and an empty building standing in Brixton which Lambeth would have to pay to secure.
At trial, the judge did accept that there may be an article 8 argument and adjourned the trial to allow the collection of further evidence. Unfortunately in the end doing all the works proved too difficult for the Co-op on a limited budget and so the case settled. Lambeth dropped all their use and occupation charges against the residents and although possession orders were granted, they agreed not to enforce them until those residents eligible to be re-housed had been given a chance to bid or been made suitable direct offers.
Although a final decision was not made on the article 8 point, it was accepted as an arguable case by the judge, who had the power to make a possession order at once. The residents of Carlton Mansions gained over a year in their homes, which was a good result as Lambeth had sought to evict them within a few days. All use and occupation charges were dropped, and the residents did not have to pay Lambeth’s legal costs.