Homeless man had ‘good reason’ for late challenge against Tower Hamlets Council housing decision, court rules

Tower Hamlets Council. Picture: Mike Brooke

Tower Hamlets Council. Picture: Mike Brooke - Credit: Archant

A homeless man had a “good reason” to bring a late appeal against Tower Hamlets Council’s decision that he was not in priority need of housing because he was trying to secure legal aid, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

In a judgment which was welcomed by campaigners, the court recognised the "bleak picture of the difficulties faced by homelessness applicants" trying to challenge council decisions, "especially as a result of" the impact of legal aid cuts.

Abdullah Al Ahmed challenged Tower Hamlets Council's decision almost a month after the 21-day limit on filing an appeal while homeless charity Crisis helped him find lawyers to fight his case.

Mr Al Ahmed argued that the delay to find a professional lawyer constituted a "good reason" for bringing a late appeal.

In 2018, a judge at Central London County Court ruled that Mr Al Ahmed did have a good reason, finding that "it was reasonable for him to wait for Crisis to find him a legal representative because without a legal representative this appeal was never going to go anywhere".

Following an appeal by the council, a High Court judge overturned that decision last year, ruling that the process of filing an appeal was "not especially sophisticated or taxing".

Mr Justice Dove found that Mr Al Ahmed's appeal had "benefited from, but did not require, the added legal sophistication" of professional legal advice.

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He added: "I am unable to accept the contention that it is necessary for a lawyer to be instructed before adequate grounds of appeal, sufficient to bring the appeal before the court, can be drafted."

But, in a judgment on Thursday, January 30, the Court of Appeal reversed that decision and allowed Mr Al Ahmed's appeal.

Sir Stephen Richards, sitting with Lord Justice David Richards and Lord Justice Phillips, ruled that there was no "proper basis" for overturning the original County Court decision.

Mr Al Ahmed's appeal was supported by housing charity Shelter, which argued that Mr Justice Dove's ruling would set "a concerning precedent that fails to take into account the frailties of homeless applicants and the particular barriers they may face in obtaining legal assistance".

In a witness statement, Shelter's chief executive Polly Neate said that recent cuts to legal aid - brought in by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo) - had led to "housing advice deserts throughout the country".

She added that council decisions were often "hard for homeless applicants to understand" and did not make clear what legal issues would need to be addressed in any appeal.

In his judgment, Sir Stephen said Shelter's evidence "presents a bleak picture of the difficulties faced by homelessness applicants in bringing an appeal ... without legal advice and representation, and of the difficulties they may face in finding someone to provide those services under legal aid, especially as a result of the post-LASPO shrinkage of the housing advice sector".

The judge added: "It would be both surprising and unfair if difficulties of that kind could not be taken fully into account and given appropriate weight in the assessment of whether there was a good reason for failure to bring an appeal in time."

Sir Stephen continued: "If and in so far as Mr Justice Dove was basing himself on a wider proposition that homelessness applicants are able as a general rule to draft a notice of appeal and adequate grounds of appeal without legal representation ... such a proposition is in my judgment mistaken."

In a statement after the ruling, Ms Neate said: "This is a very welcome judgment, recognising the difficulties faced by homeless applicants bringing a court appeal without legal advice and representation.

"Importantly, the judgment also recognises the wider difficulties caused by cuts to legal aid and the subsequent shrinking of the housing advice sector."