Appealing a Homelessness Decision Out of Time: A Welcome Sense of Realism Injected by the Court of Appeal in an Age of Legal Aid Advice Deserts

On 30 January 2020 the Court of Appeal handed down judgment in an important case concerned with bringing a homelessness appeal pursuant to section 204 of the Housing Act 1996 after the 21 day time limit prescribed.

The decision is Al Ahmed v Tower Hamlets LBC [2020] EWCA Civ 51 and it involved an appellant appealing out of time because he was unable to find legal advice and assistance to help him issue an appeal. At first instance, the Judge held that there was a good reason for allowing the appellant to bring an appeal out of time. That decision was reversed by the High Court, but the Court of Appeal allowed an appeal and restored the decision of the first instance Judge.

A number of important points arise out of this decision.

The first is the court’s conclusion that the Mitchell/Denton principles do not apply to section 204 appeals and the question of whether or not there is a good reason for allowing an appellant to bring a homelessness appeal out of time.

The second important point is the recognition given by the Court of Appeal to the realities of the post-LASPO climate. At paragraph 34 the Court of Appeal states: “I have summarised the evidence placed before this court by Shelter. It presents a bleak picture of the difficulties faced by homelessness applicants in bringing an appeal under s.204 of the 1996 Act without legal advice and representation, and of the difficulties they may face in finding someone provide those services under legal aid, especially as a result of the post-LASPO shrinkage of the housing advice sector.”

The third important point is that the court stressed that whilst every case depends on its own facts and circumstances, these were factors that could be taken into account. The court explained that: “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 and, to the extent that it arises as a separate issue, for delay in applying for permission to bring an appeal out of time.”

The court was careful to ensure that this is not perceived as them giving carte blanche to delay and therefore said: “Where an applicant relies on the fact that he was unrepresented and was seeking legal aid as a reason for non-compliance, the circumstances will need to be examined with care, including scrutiny of the diligence with which he acted in seeking legal aid.” However, the willingness by the Court of Appeal to recognise the true position on the ground and that this may be a good reason for not bringing an appeal within time, when such appeals are complex and based on points of law only, is a welcome step in the right direction.

As a final word of caution, the position will be different where the appellant has had legal advice throughout the review. Nonetheless, anyone who has practised in this area of law will have encountered appellants who have only found assistance too late, and this decision offers some hope for such individuals.