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Evictions update – Practice Direction 51Z to be extended for a further 2 months until 23 August

On 5th June an announcement was welcomed by tenants across the UK, extending the stay of all possession proceedings against tenants or mortgagees for a further 2 months. The stay was initially to be lifted on 25 June, the approach of which was causing some concern to those who are living in unstable housing and housing practitioners alike.

The court is not required to give any notice of the stay of the proceedings in each case and no time limits will apply.

Possession hearings during the coronavirus pandemic

The government has released guidance on how courts are managing the outbreak, including guidance on what to expect if you are required to attend. You should not attend court if you are self-isolating because you or someone you live with shows symptoms.

Housing possession claims have their own unique rules as to how they are treated by the court contained in part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules, and for that reason their own unique issues to overcome. In most cases, an initial hearing will be listed for just 6 minutes, thought to be enough time for the court to either order possession against an occupier or, if a valid defence is identified, to list the case for a longer hearing.

Many people who attend these initial hearings will not be familiar with the court system at all, and one of the resources usually available to them will be a duty solicitor, attending on the day in order to provide last minute advice to those faced with eviction. This service is often invaluable to both tenants and the courts themselves as it allows any defence to be identified and presented to the judge quickly. For this reason, initial possession claims are often listed together, sometimes 30 or more in a single morning or afternoon session. The problems that this creates in terms of social distancing is obvious when there are 30 people waiting in a single room for their case to be heard, seeking advice from an adviser face to face and handing over their paperwork.

An experienced housing practitioner will be able to identify things like problems with benefits or rent accounts that may be unknown to the tenant, there may be additional support that is required, claims that have not been brought correctly or problems with disrepair that can lead to a reduction in rent arrears. In order to identify this within the time available to each defendant, the duty solicitor must be able to see the papers of the claim as well as access sensitive information that would otherwise be restricted under data protection. While many court hearings are now being held remotely to avoid unnecessary contact, the problem of sharing documents remotely with an adviser one I have yet to hear a good suggestion to address.

Evictions and possession claims in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic

With warnings of a recession and many people having lost their livelihoods as a result of the coronavirus, it is likely that evictions and possession claims will increase sharply when the courts re-opens for this type of case. It is more important than ever that people have access to legal advice that could help. Until there is a safe, secure and reliable way to provide this, possession proceedings should not and cannot continue as they have done in the past.

Eviction in this time of crisis is not only a public health risk but a social problem that is likely to only be temporarily put off by this extended stay. A rise in homelessness and use of overcrowded temporary accommodation is likely to be inevitable if evictions are not restricted after the stay is lifted. So far the only proposals to deal with this has been an extension of the notice period give to a tenant to 3 months (which can be served during the stay from the courts) and guidance on how to try and avoid evictions given to private landlords. Unlike in social housing tenancies, the guidance is only discretionary, and it is up to the individual landlord whether they wish to follow it or not. A landlord who ignores the guidance can still evict their tenants with no consequences.

The announcement of 5 June came with not only an extension of the stay or possession claims but also a promise to give some thought as to how the courts will manage the renewed claims, including a promise of modifying Part 55 to allow the claims to be managed fairly and protect the more vulnerable. So far, there has been no indication of what these changes might be, but it seems clear that we cannot return to business as usual on 23 August.

Our specialist team of Housing solicitors in London have been passionately defending the rights of those with housing and property issues for over 40 years. We specialise in a broad range of legal matters including bringing and defending possession claims, landlord and tenant disputes and homelessness. Get in touch with us today on 0808 271 9413 or via our online contact form