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Evictions, the courts and coronavirus

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By David Sixsmith, Senior Lecturer in Law

We are living in extraordinary and, for many, extremely worrying times. The coronavirus pandemic is not something which anybody could have anticipated, and it has placed many members of our university community in a position in which they never expected to be. In response to this, the government has put in place measures and provisions supporting the people of the country in ways which are unprecedented, with daily announcements being made which attempt to plug the gaps left by such provisions to date.

Once such area of concern relates to housing. Many of the staff and students within our university community who live currently in private rented accommodation under the terms of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreement, or in properties which are subject to a mortgage, will have justifiable concerns over whether they will be able to afford to pay their rent or mortgage over the coming months, and the consequences of failing to do so. This blog is an update on the current position from a procedural legal perspective on the specific point of evictions, as well as offering some tips for anybody who remains concerned about their current position. It is to be taken as general information rather than specific legal advice; if any reader requires specific advice then please contact a local solicitor’s firm.

How has the law relating to evictions changed following the outbreak of coronavirus? 

On 27 March 2020, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Chancellor signed Civil Procedure Rule Practice Direction 51Z relating to housing possession proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic. The key section of the announcement on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is as follows, with the emboldened text being the writer’s emphasis: 

"Following a decision by the Master of the Rolls with the Lord Chancellors agreement the court service will suspend all ongoing housing possession action – this means that neither cases currently in the system or any about to go in the system can progress to the stage where someone could be evicted.

This suspension of housing possessions action will initially last for 90 days, but this can be extended if needed. This measure will protect all private and social renters, as well as those with mortgages and those with licenses covered by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. This will apply to both England and Wales.”

Broken down, this means that the judiciary has formally suspended all current eviction proceedings, applying to both tenancies for renters and mortgage possession claims against homeowners, for 90 days. That takes into account both proceedings which are currently in the systems, which will be stayed or paused for the 90-day period, and those which are currently about to be issued by landlords against tenants or mortgage lenders against homeowners. All such claims will not proceed through the court system to a stage where an order evicting a tenant or homeowner is made.
Furthermore, in relation to notices of intended possession issued by landlords to tenants, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has announced the following, with the emboldened text again being the writer’s emphasis:

“From 26 March 2020. landlords will have to give all renters 3 months’ notice if they intend to seek possession (i.e. serve notice that they want to end the tenancy) – this means the landlord can’t apply to start the court process until after this period. This extended buffer period will apply in law until 30 September 2020 and both the end point, and the three-month notice period can be extended if needed. This protection covers most tenants in the private and social rented sectors in England and Wales, and all grounds of evictions. This includes possession of tenancies in the Rent Act 1977, the Housing Act 1985, the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Act 1988. After three months if the tenant has not moved a landlord needs to apply to court in order to proceed.”

Female student working on laptop in bedroom of student accommodation

This means that if a tenant or homeowner does fall behind with rent or mortgage payments, landlords and lenders will have to give a tenant or homeowner a minimum of three months’ written notice before they can begin court proceedings against them. This should alleviate, therefore, any concerns that those staff and students to whom this situation could potentially apply may have. 

"It is imperative that any person who believes that they are at risk of falling behind with their payments because of a coronavirus-related drop in household income should contact their landlord or mortgage lender immediately and open a dialogue about how to manage those arrears effectively"

David Sixsmith
Senior Lecturer in Law

The risks, and some practical tips

It must be stressed that this is an administrative provision, which has been introduced by the higher judiciary. It does not mean that people are not required to pay their rent or mortgage; if you can, you absolutely should. It only temporarily suspends the procedural consequences of a tenant’s or homeowner’s failure to meet their basic contractual obligations under their agreements. It does not provide an exemption from the requirement to pay rent, mortgage payments or comply with any other term of a tenant or homeowner’s agreement for occupation; it simply means that mortgage lenders and landlords will not be able to obtain an order from the court for possession of a property or a warrant of execution to evict a tenant or homeowner during the course of the next three months. Once the time period has expired, provided it is not extended, applications to the courts for possession and warrants of execution will be able to be made, and the courts will be able to make orders to that effect. It is therefore imperative that any person who believes that they are at risk of falling behind with their payments because of a coronavirus-related drop in household income should contact their landlord or mortgage lender immediately and open a dialogue about how to manage those arrears effectively. Tenants and homeowners in this situation should also make sure that if anything is agreed upon verbally, they send a follow up email confirming what their understanding of the agreement is, and ask the lender or landlord to confirm that they agree in writing in response. That will serve as important evidence in the event that a landlord or mortgage lender does take court action against a tenant or homeowner in the future. 

Finally, whereas these measures represent an important and sensible step in ensuring that the fallout from this most serious public health crisis is minimised to as large an extent as possible, it is of key importance that those people who are affected by reduced household incomes are as proactive as possible in reaching sensible agreements with landlords and mortgage lenders, which are confirmed in writing so that both parties know where they stand. However, it is hoped that the content of this article serves as some reassurance to those within our university community that, in the event that those discussions do not result in anything other than a threat of eviction, the courts will not make such an order until at least 25 June 2020. 

Further guidance for those who need it is available here.  

 

David Sixsmith joined the University of Sunderland in August 2016 as lecturer and supervising solicitor in the Sunderland Student Law Clinic, our live pro-bono service in which students handle their own caseload under the supervision of qualified solicitors. He is also Programme Leader for LLM Legal Practice (LPC) and teaches at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Read David's academic profile and more about his research interests

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Published: 3 April 2020

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