Social Housing Allocations
Dr Maggie O'Brien
February 1, 2024

Law in the community – delivering social justice

Warwick University law students are putting their legal learning into practice, By using public law and other rights based strategies to addressing systemic disadvantage and achieving effective change.

My first homeless operations post was as manager of Westminster City Council’s pressurised homeless service in the noughties. In that position I scored a number of other more dubious firsts; for example, necessity drove us to large scale temporary accommodation placement out of borough and out of London well before other authorities. I have no hard evidence, but I imagine our response to a central London housing crisis also placed us first amongst the most litigious local authorities in London. I remember feeling (a little grudgingly perhaps) the time spent on defending decisions contributed to making them robust and fair. Twenty years on, I’m still interested in the relationship between law and public service, but now as an academic at Warwick Law School.

Recently I’ve been lucky to pursue that interest through involvement in our Strategic Social Justice Clinic (SSJC), part of the Warwick Law in the Community (LinC) outreach initiative delivered in partnership with the Central England Law Centre (CELC). SSJC student volunteers support the Law Centre by researching areas of potential strategic litigation drawn from real life problems discovered at across CELC legal practices. So, how does the SSJC model work? This clinic is open to students from all years and levels of study, so we can’t ask students to get involved directly in giving legal advice. Rather, when an issue is identified as causing problems to a critical mass of Law Centre clients, we co-design projects to support social justice advisors in their duties. This might be by providing a training manual, for example, we created a digital assessment tool for St Basil’s to help them identify whether Care Leavers in their supported accommodation are receiving their legal entitlements. It might be a briefing note highlighting the trickiest areas of Law in a format manageable for front line Advisors; in 2022 LinC volunteers created an easily navigable brief on the tricky subject of student finance for young people with irregular immigration status. Increasingly, LinC students are drafting pre-action letters as a precursor of strategic litigation in areas of legal controversy.

I’ll use our Allocations project as an exemplar of the important work of Warwick LinC volunteers and our valuable collaboration with Neil Morland & Co Housing Consultants. Housing is one of the busiest of CELC practices, and this project was identified by front line advisors reporting extended waiting times for change of circumstances requests by waiting list applicants. Under the Coventry allocations policy, applications were suspended from bidding on receipt of each request. Clearly delays in considering change of circumstance were preventing some of the most vulnerable housing applicants from accessing housing. The LinC project brief was to provide an accessible legal briefing and pre-action letter for CELC legal personal, with LinC volunteers researching the best legal grounds to challenge delayed assessment. It was an interesting project, as there is no statutory guidance on how long this assessment should take.

We selected a group of twelve students to work on the problem, with one group working on the briefing note and one on the pre-action letter. Over ten weeks, students had to learn the law on housing allocations and homelessness, familiarise themselves with statutory guidance, and navigate the Allocations Policy of Coventry City Council. We always start with an introduction to relevant law, in this case judicial review and the Housing Act and Guidance, and Neil Morland joined us to lecture students on how this complex legal architecture worked in practise. Equipped with their newfound housing expertise, students debated the various legal arguments that might form the basis of a public interest challenge to the City Council. Crucially, the legal complexity of mounting a challenge was explored in depth, a process that confirmed there were good grounds for a legal challenge, guidance or no! Students finished the project by drafting an interactive briefing note for front line staff and that all important pre-action letter. There’s a really clear connection between the two outputs. The briefing note for front line advisors contains fifteen practice hints, any of which might form the basis of a legal challenge. I’ve given an example below.

Practice Hint: Inconsistent decision-making in analogous processes may give rise to a strong claim of procedure and fairness in judicial review – R(on the application of Bapio Action Limited and another) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2008] UKHL 27

This was a really successful LinC project. It was great for our students to see a real-world example of how analogic reasoning in law can create rational grounds for a legal challenge. And for CELC, it means front line Advisors can better spot issues with the potential for a legal challenge and CELC lawyers save time by using a standard form pre action letter which contains numerous possible grounds for challenge. In reality, CELC are just as likely to negotiate a change in policy with the Council, but I know only too well, the threat of a challenge can really focuses the mind of public sector decision makers! For five years now I’ve been connected to the Housing Sector through ongoing collaborations with Neil Morland & Co Housing Consultants, it’s been a great pleasure to be able to extend those collaborations into my work with LinC. Neil’s allocations expertise brought a really useful real-world perspective to undergraduate lawyers and insight into prospective careers outside the professions. Neil has already lectured students changes in housing regulation this year - I expect to tap him up every time LinC turns its attention to the trickiest housing issues of the moment.

Dr Margaret O’Brien

February 2024