Evictions update: the latest rules, as bailiffs continue to hold
While evictions are still relatively rare, this is an area of lettings law that has undergone the most change during the coronavirus pandemic.
Given the discussions and consultations that have taken place over the last few years in relation to abolishing Section 21 notices in England and Wales, it comes as little surprise that the rules have shifted in favour of tenants. In Scotland, no-fault evictions have been illegal since December 2017 (other than in certain specified circumstances) and it remains to be seen to what extent the ‘temporary’ measures currently in place in England will remain once the health emergency status has subsided.
Under the current rules across the UK, for most evictions landlords must give six months’ notice, which the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG, England) says is “an important protection to all tenants”, giving them a reasonable amount of time to find alternative accommodation.
The latest change is an extension of the suspension of bailiff activity in relation to enforcing possession orders, including the serving of any 14-day notices. This was originally brought in to cover the Christmas period, from 11th December to 11th January, then extended to 21st February, then to the 31st March and it’s now been extended again until 31st May. This is to ensure that tenants are protected from eviction during the national lockdown period and it brings England into line with Wales and Scotland.
In terms of whether there will be any more extensions, in Wales, the ban is subject to a periodic three-week review and, in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that “if necessary, the regulations can be extended further after that date” for all Level 3 and 4 areas.
Be assured that if your tenant has seriously breached their tenancy agreement or broken the law in another way, this suspension on eviction action may not apply. Examples include anti-social or criminal behaviour, or domestic abuse. In England, it is also possible to begin eviction proceedings if your tenant has rent arrears greater than six months’ rent. If your property is in Wales and your tenant is having financial difficulties, it’s worth reminding them that they can apply for a loan to pay their rent.
It is important to note that each country has different rules on eviction, which can change quite quickly, so do contact your local Reeds Rains branch to make sure you know the latest rules before taking any action.
What can you do if you need to serve notice?
You can serve your tenant with a notice of eviction at any time. If they have breached their tenancy agreement and it satisfies one of the relevant grounds, you can serve a Section 8; if it is for another reason, you can serve a Section 21, although the notice period you must give them currently stands at six months.
If the tenant doesn’t leave, you can escalate the eviction to the court system, which is currently open for possession hearings and possession orders are being granted, although bear in mind there is likely to be a significant backlog, so it’s almost certainly going to take longer than in normal circumstances. The current process is that landlords are given 21 days’ notice of a ‘review date’, on which they must be available for a telephone meeting with their tenant (and/or their representatives) to see whether an out-of-court settlement can be reached. 14 days before the review date, the landlord must provide evidence to the court, then, based on the evidence and the review, the court will decide whether to proceed to a hearing.
Eviction specialists estimate cases will probably take a minimum of six months or more to progress through the courts, although the most serious cases – such as those involving anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and, in England, rent arrears of more than six months – are being prioritised.
Unfortunately, if the tenant still refuses to leave, that’s where landlords are hitting a wall right now because bailiffs are not doing any physical eviction work. And it’s important to know that, regardless of whether you have been granted a possession order, you yourself are not allowed to remove your tenant – only a bailiff can legally do that.
Try to reach an out-of-court agreement
In light of the fact that it could take a year or more to get rid of a tenant, consider trying to come to an agreement before taking formal eviction action. As well as it being a potentially lengthy and costly process, there are strict legal stipulations for when and how paperwork is issued and if you get anything wrong, the court could declare the eviction invalid, meaning you have to begin the process all over again.
If we manage your property, be assured that if there are any problems with the tenancy, an experienced member of the team will communicate and negotiate with you and your tenant. However, as the consequences of the pandemic continue to impact many tenants’ incomes and lives, it is important that you are prepared for how to proceed if things start to go wrong.
You can contact your local Reeds Rains branch at any time if you need advice – our team is always here to help. For a summary of the rule changes through 2020, see our blog from mid-November and you can read the government’s possession action guidance on the GOV.UK website.