Possession claims set to return as government stay expires
Posted on 3rd August 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has left the UK battered and bruised, with the economic, social and personal effects of the virus felt throughout the nation. The ongoing economic fallout has left tenants across the country out of work and unable to meet rental arrangements. To tackle this fragile situation, the government introduced a temporary stay on possession claims earlier this year.
The amendments involved a stay on new and existing possession claims, as well as extending the minimum notice period.
However, despite initially extending the scheme back in April 2020, the stay on possession claims is due to expire later in August. The government is yet to announce any further extension, if they plan to at all.
Struggling tenants and homeless charities are now concerned that such an abrupt end to the scheme will lead to a rise in eviction notices, with many tenants still in rent arrears.
Tenants struggle to meet rental payments
The impact of the COVID-19 lockdown has been far reaching. Many businesses have entered administration, and thousands of staff have been placed on furlough or lost their job via redundancies.
As a result, furloughed and unemployed tenants have found themselves unable to make rental payments and accumulating substantial rent arrears and this seems likely for the foreseeable future with the economy still floundering as the pandemic continues.
The situation isn’t much better for the self-employed, despite receiving limited assistance from the government via the Self-Employed Support Scheme. Some have turned to applying for Universal Credit, though the Benefit Agency has been inundated with requests and struggled to meet the demands of new applicants.
Will eviction numbers rise during COVID-19?
Some charities have raised concerns that any lifting of the stay on evictions will lead to a surge in possession proceedings, with many renters in danger of eviction due to rent arrears. The charity, Shelter, has predicted that some 230,000 private renters1 may be left in a precarious position when proceedings are allowed to resume.
There are growing calls for the government to take substantive action to avoid the ramifications of numerous evictions across the country.
A rise in evictions could result in tenants and their households becoming street homeless, as well as a surge of homeless applications being made, which in turn may place pressure on local authorities’ housing departments, homeless charities and housing lawyers as well as the Legal Aid Agency to provide funding for eligible clients.
Vulnerable tenants at increased risk of the pandemic are likely to be put at greater risk if made homeless and social landlords and local authorities need to take account of this when pursuing possession cases.
The needs of at-risk tenants need to be considered when implementing homelessness relief duty and when providing temporary accommodation.
The effect on court cases
The courts are also likely to be adversely affected by this surge, as they will inevitably struggle to efficiently process a backlog of cases due to limited resources and the availability of staff.
This could be frustrating for those who have been patiently waiting on the expiry of notices, the issue of proceedings or the listing of hearing dates only to discover that their cases will be delayed until further notice.
In more extreme cases, there is a worry that landlords falling behind on mortgage payments may choose to disregard the court process altogether and exclude their tenants by unlawfully changing the locks without any realistic timeframe for the conclusion of the court process.
It is evidently clear that numerous obstacles are on the horizon once the moratorium ends and possession claims restart. Should possession orders and eviction warrants be made, this may result in future homelessness for thousands of households in similar situations.
It is fundamental to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society receive the necessary help and support they need to avoid facing the threat of eviction.
This unprecedented situation may, however, allow opportunities for practitioners to formulate novel and unprecedented defences, particularly in the sphere of arguing reasonableness and proportionality in light of the pandemic.