Christmas is less than two weeks away, and the waiting room of Bow County Court is teeming with people on the brink of losing their homes.
The court sets aside one day a week to hear cases brought by mortgage providers against residents in the Olympic borough of Newham – an area with the second-highest rate of repossession in the country.
Nearly 29,000 homes were repossessed in England between January and September, and housing charities are warning of worse to come. Figures published yesterday by the Financial Services Authority show the number is up 6 per cent compared with this time last year.
In this small court, less than a mile away from the newly built Westfield Stratford City shopping centre, more than 60 repossession cases will be heard today. Carol Stapleton’s is just one of them. She worked as a clerical officer at a London hospital until November last year when she lost her job owing to ill health. Her mortgage provider filed a possession order on her home a few months later as she fell behind with payments, and lawyers for the bank have asked the judge that she is evicted immediately. "I kept explaining to my mortgage provider that I had lost my job and could not afford the payments, but I was still being fined every month," Ms Stapleton says.
Accompanying her to the court is her daughter, in her mid-20s, who also works for the NHS. She has brought with her a letter stating that she will pay £600 per month to prevent her mother from being evicted. The rest will come from other family members.
With the help of lawyer Nick Turner, who works for the housing charity Shelter, Ms Stapleton is able to negotiate a higher rate of repayment and stay in her home – for now. Mr Turner sits at his desk for the day in the middle of the busy court's waiting room, where he provides free legal advice to people facing repossession.
Of the dozens of people in court today, he will only have the time to see three of them. Those he doesn't have the chance to see will most likely appear in front of a judge without representation, against a well-prepared lawyer acting on behalf of their mortgage lender or landlord. Typically, he will have about 20 minutes to learn the details of each case.
“It is coal face work,” he says as he scribbles down the income and expenditure of the lady in front of him. “Most of the time clients will have not had legal advice before coming to court.”
“It never ceases to astound me that with such important litigation – potentially losing someone’s home –people are often not represented,” he says.
A lack of advice throughout the eviction process means that many who arrive at the court to face repossession are ill-prepared, and often without the right paper work.
When it is given, Mr Turner says legal advice can have a "dramatic" effect in these cases. But impending cuts to legal aid – a planned £350m by April 2013 – will leave many more people vulnerable to eviction.
“It will affect our work enormously. Some work we currently take on, such as preventing eviction by sorting out welfare benefits problems, is likely to be taken out of our scope entirely,” he says.
With unemployment at its highest for 15 years and set to rise further, thousands more could find themselves in the same position as Ms Stapleton. But while a scheme currently exists to help unemployed people with mortgage payments, this may soon be scrapped.
The Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme was cut by 40 per cent last year, and last week the Welfare Minister Lord Freud raised the possibility that the £400m scheme may go.
While the cuts could mean fewer lawyers acting for tenants in the courts, Mr Turner says the squeeze on incomes will ensure that Bow County Court, and others around the country, will see an increasing number of home repossession cases.
"It's a busy court, and I can only see things getting worse," he admits. “There is a recession on.”
Helen Dalton found out in November that she would be losing her home. As is the norm for most repossession cases, unemployment was the catalyst.
Helen, 35, had moved into the house with her husband and three children - two girls aged 16 and 11, and an 8-year-old boy.
She was working as a teaching assistant at a school near to where she lives in Manchester – the area outside of London where people are most at risk of repossession, according to a report published this week by Shelter. However, her contract was not renewed, and shortly after that she separated from her husband, leaving her unable to keep up with mortgage payments.
“I was finding it really hard to cope,” she says. “You have to fill in form after form. It’s not the nicest process, and I just shoved it to one side. I was in denial really over what was happening.”
Before long, Helen had built up over £6000 in arrears with her mortgage provider. While she was trying to figure out a way to pay the fines incurred for missing payments, her mortgage provider attempted to pursue their claim through the courts.
“All they want is their money. There is no customer care, no sympathy for your situation. You can tell them you can’t afford it and you have three kids but they just say “we can’t give you any more time.”
Helen has been told she must leave her home by early January.
She has arranged for herself and her three children to move in with her mother – where she lives with her uncle, mother and grandmother.
She and her children will sleep in one room of the three bedroom house, where in just a few weeks, three generations will be forced to share.
“I am trying make it as exciting as I can for them, to make it like a holiday. It isn’t the best situation.”
Helen still remains positive, however. “I am a bubbly bright person but this has knocked me off my feet. I am luckier than so many people. I’ve got somewhere to go.”