The rules around the eviction process and court hearings of possession claims has been one of the most confusing and frustrating aspects of the coronavirus crisis for landlords, with the government making a number of changes to the law, sometimes at very short notice.
- First, there was the announcement that from 19th March, an application for a possession order could not be made to the court for three months, effectively suspending any new eviction action until towards the end of June.
- Then, on 5th June came the announcement of a two-month extension on the ‘eviction ban’ - that possession claims would not be heard in court until the end of August.
- On 17th July, it was announced that a ‘Covid temporary provision’ was being added to existing regulations, requiring landlords wishing to proceed with possession claims already in the system to serve a ‘reactivation notice’ to both their tenant and the court. Under this provision, landlords also have to provide the court with any relevant information about the tenant’s situation with regard to COVID-19, such as whether they have been ill or are shielding, along with a full arrears history. This will remain in place until 28th March 2021.
- And on 21st August, just before the courts were due to re-open for possession hearings on the 24th, Robert Jenrick announced a further 4-week extension of the suspension of eviction hearings, until 21st September.
- On 29th August, the notice period for a landlord wishing to evict a tenant in England was further extended, from three to six months.
- And on 22nd September, the housing minister, Christopher Pincher, stated that bailiffs in England and Wales would be told that they should not enforce any possession orders over the Christmas period, between 11th December and 11th January.
Now the justice secretary has written to bailiffs’ associations to request that they do not enter any properties in areas of England classified as 2 (high) or 3 (very high) under the new Covid-19 alert ‘tier’ system. This has been agreed to by members of the High Court Enforcement Officers Association.
In Wales, where different lockdown restrictions apply, evictions are not currently taking place while the country is under ‘firebreak’ conditions.
This emergency legislation has been introduced to ensure that vulnerable tenants are not put at risk health-wise and are not forced to find a new home at a time when local authorities are already dealing with increased demand for housing services. Obviously, with lockdown restrictions changing frequently and sometimes rapidly, all of us in the buy to let industry must be prepared for the rules around evictions to also fluctuate. But, as it currently stands, while bailiffs may not be able to execute evictions, the courts are open for possession hearings so, if you need to evict your tenant for any valid reason, you can begin the process.
If you are concerned about these recent legislative changes, please be reassured by the fact that evictions are still very rare, particularly if your property is professionally let and managed. The government is also keen to assure landlords that they will still be able to evict at short notice in the most serious circumstances, such as in cases involving anti-social behaviour or domestic abuse. And in situations where a tenant is in ‘serious’ arrears, owing more than six months’ rent, they can now be evicted with a minimum of four weeks’ notice.
England, Wales and Scotland are now in line with each other regarding eviction notice periods, albeit with some slightly different effective dates.
- Wales: The notice period was extended from three to six months back in July, effective for notices served between 24th July and 30th September 2020.
From the beginning of September, tenants can access a loan scheme to help with payment of rent, with funds being transferred directly from the scheme to the landlord or agent.
- Scotland: A six-month notice period applied from 7th April. Since 3rd October, landlords have been able to give 28 days’ notice to evict on the grounds of anti-social behaviour or criminal activity.
The Scottish government is also providing short-term loan support for landlords who are facing hardship as a result of non-payment of rent.
Summary of how the courts are currently proceeding with possession hearings:
- The most serious eviction cases - such as those involving anti-social behaviour, domestic violence, fraud and extreme rent arrears (at least 12 months’ rent or 9 months’ rent if that is more than 25% of a landlord’s total income) - will be prioritised.
- Landlords will be 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), after which the court will decide whether to proceed to a hearing. 14 days before that review date, the landlord must provide their evidence to the court in paper or electronic form.
- Updated versions of the ‘reactivation notices’ have been published by the government.
- During the pandemic, courts are expected to operate at about 25% of their normal capability.
If you would like any information, advice or support regarding evicting a tenant, please do contact your local Reeds Rains branch and you will be able to speak to an experienced member of our team.