As our housing lawyer Kathy Cosgrove wins a LALY Award, we recap GMLC’s recent housing casework and campaigns.
This month, we’re delighted to say that our housing solicitor Kathy Cosgrove won the award in the Housing Law category of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards 2021. It’s great recognition for what she has achieved over the last year with the GMLC team, on both high-profile cases and in her daily work representing clients in Greater Manchester facing homelessness and destitution.
Josie Hicklin, our trainee housing solicitor who works alongside Kathy, wrote: “She inspires her team to know the law can be used to change the world.”
A year of legal challenges
We’ve always known that inequality, poverty, poor housing and homelessness kill people in this country.
However, people still fell through the gaps, and that’s why, despite having to close our doors to in-person appointments, we had to find different ways to reach people and for them to be able to reach us. We couldn’t do this alone – we relied on other frontline services to put us in touch with people who could use our help, such as homeless people who were refused assistance and were left outside or sofa surfing, unable to keep themselves and others safe from Covid-19. Despite the challenges, between May 2020 and May 2021, we carried out casework for around 150 clients and dealt with almost 2000 enquiries through remote access channels across our services.
The government’s approach changed after the first wave and the state began to reduce protections, deciding who ‘deserved’ help. Following so many years of ‘Hostile Environment’ policies, it was no surprise to us that people from abroad were put first on the list of the ‘undeserving’. In September 2020, just at the start of the second wave, the Home Office began to evict asylum seekers whose applications to stay in the UK had been refused.
In a strategic and high profile case in 2020, three of our clients instructed Kathy and the public law team to challenge the Home Office’s policy to resume evictions during the course of the pandemic, not just to protect their own health, but that of their communities and the wider public. In November 2020, they succeeded in obtaining an injunction prohibiting not just their eviction, but the eviction of all refused asylum seekers.
In April 2021, the Home Office decided to try again to restart evictions, despite the pandemic being far from over. Our three clients and a fourth (who instructed Deighton Pierce Glynn) challenged the new evictions policy on grounds of public health. The Home Office decided to withdraw their policy rather than explain the legal basis and justification for their decision making. They committed not to recommence evictions until their assessment of safety was such that lockdown measures could be lifted.
These wins had implications for over 4000 destitute asylum seekers, who were able to stay in their homes while the lockdown measures were still in place, giving them more chance to apply for status in the UK and think through their next steps. The Guardian covered the case, as it showed how challenges using the law can represent those most vulnerable to public authorities’ decisions.
With pandemic protections coming to an end, the next year for our clients is likely to be even harder than the last. The Dying Homeless Project reported 976 deaths this year, a rise of 37% in the year of ‘Everyone In’ policies (only 3% were Covid related). What will be needed to stop this rise in the year of ‘Everyone Out’?
Campaigning for change
We recognise that legal advice alone is not sufficient to deal with the consequences of the Covid crisis. As a result, Kathy and the GMLC team have also been working on combating Covid-related evictions with the Greater Manchester Against Evictions coalition alongside Manchester-based tenants’ unions. We have challenged public policy each time protections for renters were threatened, such as in September at the end of the stay on proceedings, and in January and March when the eviction ban was due to be brought to an end. (The ban was extended to the end of May 2021, largely due to sustained pressure on the government.)
As well as producing a Covid Survival Guide with advice on housing issues, we have given statistics, guidance and information to politicians and the press to better inform coverage of the Covid crisis and to use our knowledge to shape housing policy in the interests of the communities across Greater Manchester that we represent and work with every day.
We continue to work on getting local Social Housing Providers to commit not to use mandatory grounds to achieve ‘efficient’ evictions during this time when so many tenants have completely reasonable reasons for having built up rent arrears.
Still fighting for free access to justice
GMLC is by no means alone in our redoubled efforts this year. At the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards, we were also pleased to see Jeinsen Lam from South West London Law Centres recognised as a Finalist in the Housing Law category alongside Kathy, and Law Centre Northern Ireland won in the category for Regional Legal Aid Firms – much deserved recognition for our partners in the Law Centres Network.
Despite cuts to legal aid, financial pressures and the unprecedented wave of demand created by the pandemic, Greater Manchester Law Centre is still here, still strong, and still fighting for free access to justice.