When should inspections in disrepair cases proceed in light of the COVID-19 lockdown?
The inspection of the property in a disrepair claim provides the basis for the preparation of a report outlining the extent of the disrepair and a schedule of works for the landlord and, where suitable, recommendations on whether the tenant would need to be decanted pending the completion of the works. Therefore, the inspection process is crucial to the resolution of disrepair issues.
However, following the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic, the government has released new guidelines relating to the way in which possession and disrepair cases need to be progressed. The changes to the possession regime are set out in the blog entitled Covid 19: Possession Proceedings and New Practice Directions. Section 3 of the Guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government relates to the changes to the disrepair regime, particularly in reference to when and how access should be facilitated.
The focus of the changes are that landlords and tenants take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to resolving issues.
Section 3.2 stipulates that landlords’ repairing obligations have not changed. However, section 3.8 encourages tenants to inform landlords early and engage constructively. Smartphones can be used to reduce the need for in-person inspections of properties. Where it is reasonable and safe, it is recommended to allow local authority, landlords and contractors to access the property to inspect or remedy urgent health and safety issues.
What is considered to be urgent health and safety issues?
Albeit not an exhaustive list, examples are provided of some urgent health and safety matters including the following:
- Issue with the fabric of the property i.e. roof leak;
- Defective boiler i.e. no heating or hot water;
- Plumbing issues, ie no washing or toilet facilities
- Defective white goods, ie washing machine or fridge, resulting in inability to wash clothes or store food
- Security issues i.e. broken windows or external doors; and
- Equipment which a person with a disability is reliant on which requires installation or repair.
Therefore, if the disrepair does not fall into any of these categories, an inspection of the property should be postponed until after the lockdown has eased. However, where a matter needs be addressed urgently, an inspection may proceed albeit with reasonable precautions, as addressed in Section 3.3.
Surveyors who inspect properties should use PPE and maintain the 2m distance. It may be that the surveyor attends with occupants remaining in a separate room and this is most important for vulnerable occupants i.e. children, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with underlying health conditions. If tenants believe they may have the virus, they need to inform the landlord as stipulated in Section 3.6, in which case further precautions may be required.
The changes are practical but not without issues in implementation. There may be disagreements as to what is urgent and health related and when access for inspections should and should not be facilitated. There may be further complications where tenants are reluctant to allow access for urgent issues which affect other properties and landlords need to consider injunctive relief.
Furthermore, there will need to be a balancing exercise between the health and safety of tenants with that of contractors and surveyors. Due to the lockdown, landlords will have fewer staff to call upon to attend premises and this is further exacerbated by the shortage of and huge demand for PPE.
Therefore, although non urgent inspections are on hold, there may still be insufficient resources to address even the urgent health and safety issues. Hopefully both landlords and tenants will try to work together and embrace the pragmatic and common sense approach during the lockdown.