‘Makes me want to cry’: Judges fight rent hikes amid wrecked courts | The cost of living crisis in Britain
IIt’s a February morning at Doncaster County Court and a pensioner is led out of the courtroom wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. She wept for most of the nearly 15-minute hearing, telling the district judge how she failed to save her elderly mother’s life four weeks ago.
A personal tragedy forced him to tackle growing financial problems that worsened after retirement, including a mortgage of more than £60,000 and interest arrears on his £300,000 home, for which he was sued by Leeds Building Society.
The judge was somewhat sympathetic – before adjourning for 28 days to allow the defendant to raise around £48,000 through a secured loan against part of his late mother’s £250,000 estate, ruling that “the creditor’s interest may be protected in this case”. The man who was once a lawyer thanks the judge and leaves, looking very broken.
Such scenes play out in debt courts across the country. Here, the volume of cases is increasing day by day based on the cost of living crisis.
“These cases are increasing. It is very unfortunate,” the district judge, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian. “People’s finances are heavy. How does anyone survive these days – I want to cry. It is difficult for us to fight as judges.
Here comes the Guardian this week courtrooms Blackpool, Doncaster and Caernarfon in North Wales and found anecdotal evidence of an increase in cases in all three locations.
Each micro-story adds a meaningful macro-issue.
Homelessness charity Shelter warned late last year that one in 12 private tenants in England – the equivalent of 941,000 people – were at risk of eviction. This warning seems to be confirmed by official data trends.
The Department of Justice’s latest mortgage and landlord foreclosure statistics for the period October-December 2022 show a 59% increase in rent-seeking claims by private landlords, with expedited procedures known. innocent evictions have increased. 193% in this quarter of 2021.
The data shows that both types of foreclosure claims are higher than before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – when evictions were halted – as judges prepare for more hearings as the cost of living crisis deepens.
“We’re seeing a lot of foreclosures through leases,” another judge said. “We’re seeing less of that now with mortgages, but I think we will. People are struggling.”
Back in Doncaster, the business continues to flow – stories of seemingly simple financial difficulties ending in life-changing moments.
In one morning, a judge hears nine cases involving people who are at risk of losing their homes at once. The longest listening session lasts only 19 minutes.
It involved the eviction of a middle-aged woman on housing benefit who was not paying her rent in full. The court says she was out of work for a “significant period” due to a number of illnesses, including dermatomyositis, suspected cervical cancer and mental health issues, and that her case was adjourned twice because she did not receive legal advice.
The third attempt was not much different; in part because the defendant did not make an effort to hire a local law firm (“I’ve never been in a situation like this, it’s so confusing,” he told the judge); but in part because of a national shortage of lawyers capable of handling these cases.
“This is your last, last chance,” the judge told the defendant sternly. “You have to take the phone and drive.”
The tenant has 21 days to defend.
In another case, a young professional couple are seeking relief after renting a property for £625 a month, with five months’ notice after they move out.
The court says he must pay the £2,550 rent as the couple show the judge a series of documents to show their futile attempts to contact the tenant. They seem perfectly reasonable – telling the judge they “want their house back”. The tenant is not there to tell his side of the story.
If not, the judge decides that after 14 days, the owners can take back their property. The tenant was ordered to pay an additional £355 to cover costs at his request.
Cases where respondents are not face to face are surprisingly common.
One morning in Blackpool, a judge looks over a list of income supplements – attempts to repay debts so unsuccessful that payments are automatically taken from debtors’ wages.
No batch of these five cases will be shown that morning. The judge does everything on paper, including calling certain people to court. Failure to do so may result in two weeks in jail.
It is housed in a dilapidated building a few yards from Blackpool’s central pier, a rather depressing sight to match the many situations that arise here. Its 1960s crumbling concrete walls and sparse government decor add to the feeling that everything here has seen better days.
“This is the worst courthouse in the country,” the judge quipped. “The technical term is an empty hole.”
Caernarfon’s pitch is different – fresh and clean. However, the conditions are the same.
Here is the landlord’s last chance to pay off the debt on the leased property. The mortgage company first sued him in 2013, but the suit was dropped when he paid off the debt.
Since then, he has had 16 more notices from his lender to repossess his property, and according to his latest applications, he has to return to court to repay almost £11,000 he owes on an interest-only mortgage on the £130,000 property.
The judge ruled he must pay £5,000 within 14 days, plus £127.60 a month on top of his usual contractual compensation.
Unlike most, he appears reasonable in court, saying he plans to renovate the property and sell it for a profit.
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