Inside justice: Glasgow Heritable Court
The business that takes place in Glasgow’s Heritable Court building becomes pretty clear as soon as you look at the sign on the wall outside the doors. It says Eviction Helpdesk and offers legal advice for those who are about to have their cases called before this hearing, which sits every Tuesday in the city’s sheriff court.
The day in court 12 begins at 10am, when the clerk calls out into the lobby: “Anyone for the summary cause heritable court, make your way inside now please.”
She goes on: “Good morning everybody. My name’s Elaine Taggart. I’m going to call out cases. If your name is called you’re in the wrong courtroom. I have the authority of the sheriff to deal with any cases that aren’t considered.”
There is chatting on the public benches. Taggart raises her voice: “Can you quieten down, please?” She turns to face the solicitors sitting round a table in the well of the court to make sure they know she means their chit-chat must stop too.
She continues: “First of all, I will be doing a callover. Today’s court is a very big court. I can’t give any time when you will be called. When you here your name being called, make your way up to this box here.” She points to the witness box.
She then tells the solicitors in the court that the day of sitting will change from Tuesday to Wednesday as of August. She warns not to ask for a continuation in three weeks time, “because the court is superloaded”.
Those who appear before the heritable court are in arrears to their landlord. Here in Glasgow, this debt is mostly to the city’s many housing associations, but also to private landlords. These are the pursuers who are seeking eviction of the tenant so that they can reclaim their property.
People sit nervously on the benches outside before coming into the court to await their case being called. They may have availed themselves of the services of the eviction helpdesk (which is run by Glasgow’s Legal Services Agency) or have their own lawyer. Some will represent themselves. Sitting on the table beside the clerk is a solicitor from Glasgow Housing Association, the biggest landlord pursuing decrees. There are also two solicitors beside her who will take on work both pursuing and defending clients. Further solicitors come and go throughout the day, including Shelter Scotland’s Chala McKenna – which helps clients fight possible eviction – and those from the LSA. Some private landlords represent themselves.
Today, arrears are mostly between £1,000-£3,000, but McKenna says: “You could potentially be evicted for £300 if arrears have accumulated over a long period. The Heritable Court is just becoming more and more busy and the level of arrears has gone up – it can be anything up to £5,000. It tends to be the single guy without any health problems getting evicted. The sheriff is more sympathetic if they have got kids or health issues, as the test is whether it is reasonable to convict.”
In the absence of the sheriff, a now-seated Taggart then calls name after name, and people – mostly looking shellshocked – move forward. Some assent to making payments, and most leave the courtroom with a relieved smile; some cases are to continued so that their payments can be monitored; and some are called before the sheriff.
As each bundle of cases diminishes, Taggart stands up and lifts another towering pile which thuds on her desk. She warns that the court will be overloaded if they keep moving cases on to the afternoon.
By 12.10, Taggart has dealt with everything she can and Sheriff Platt takes a seat on the bench. He hears cases where people’s housing benefit has been stalled and arrears have accrued, of jobs lost and of self-declarations of bankruptcy.
One man is being pursued by Ruchazie Housing which wishes to evict him because he has an antisocial behaviour order in connection with the production of a controlled drug. The man says he can’t afford legal representation and is speaking for himself, but he is very quickly offered aid from the LSA and his case will be called later. Eventually it goes to ‘proof’, where the facts of the case will be argued at a later date.
One single parent aged 22 has accrued £646 in arrears ‘due to illness brought about by her pregnancy’. It is unclear why there has been a problem with her housing benefit application but a backdated payment has since been made. The sheriff is told: “Since the commencement of these proceedings she has done without to make a payment of £15 a week. She has had to make sacrifices because of that payment and she is so fearful of losing her home.”
Ruchazie housing is seeking expenses from the young woman but Sheriff Platt sympathises with her plight and refuses the claim.
Another woman advises that she has made herself bankrupt and is now living with her mother and vacated the property she rented in January – leaving arrears of £1,625. She does not dispute these facts. The sheriff ask if there is any reason why he should not grant a decree for her eviction and she replies: ‘No’. He says he has no option to grant the decree. “Thank fuck for that,” says the woman as she leaves the court.
At 1pm, the sheriff asks if he should sit over lunchtime, but is advised by the clerk there are so many cases it would not ‘make a dent’.
In the afternoon, a 21-year-old single male who has paid only £17 since last September is evicted. He is unrepresented and not in court. A private landlord who has received no rent since January can evict her tenant who will also have to pay expenses. A tenant who has not responded to concerns about gas safety since May 14 has a decree granted against him, is to be ‘extracted’ immediately and pay expenses.
A 41-year-old woman owes £2,702 and has been texted and telephoned repeatedly to discuss the arrears, but she has not responded: she lives with her sons, aged 21 and eight, and daughters aged 18 and 14. A decree is granted against her but the sheriff orders that she is to be ejected in no sooner than 28 days’ time.
Another 45-year-old, with two 13-year-old children, owes £2,026 and is also evicted.
And so it goes on. In the course of the day, 201 cases are heard, any of which could lead to the loss of someone’s home.