This is a guest article written by Housing Law Practitioner and GMLC Member Nick Donlon.
The government announced on 8 January an extension of the stay on enforcement of evictions by county court bailiffs, which had been due to end on 11 January. This extension is due to expire on 21 February 2021. There is a serious sting in the tail of the new regulations which leaves many people still at risk of being evicted.
A stay on the enforcement of evictions had been in force until Monday 11 January. Following the government’s announcement of a third national lockdown on 4 January, Boris Johnson had promised to complete a review of the eviction ban. When Nicola Sturgeon announced an extension of the eviction ban in Scotland on Thursday 7 January, the writing was on the wall that the Prime Minister would follow suit.
It should be noted that the ban is not, and has not been, a complete one. Bailiffs are still allowed to carry out evictions in ‘specified circumstances’. These circumstances include:
- possession claims against trespassers;
- where the court has granted possession wholly or partly on the grounds of anti-social behaviour, nuisance, false statement, or domestic abuse;
- where the court has granted possession as a result of substantial rent arrears.
The sting in the tail of the regulations providing for the extension of the ban is that they change the definition of ‘substantial rent arrears’. Up until 11 January, substantial rent arrears were defined in the regulations as arrears equivalent to at least 9 months’ rent (with any rent arrears accrued after 23 March 2020 disregarded). The new regulations define substantial arrears as being an amount at least equivalent to 6 months’ rent. Furthermore there is no disregard for arrears which have accrued since 23 March 2020. The result is that under the current eviction ban it is possible that a tenant who has accumulated over 6 months arrears since 23 March 2020 – during the Covid crisis – to be facing eviction.
When the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020 the government promised that no tenant who has lost income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic would be forced out of their home. Possession claims were initially stayed which provided security to tenants that they would not be at risk of eviction. The stay on possession claims however was lifted on 28 September, meaning that landlords could start the process of eviction. In late October, enforcement of evictions was put on hold in areas subject to tier 2 and 3 lockdown restrictions. Regulations were subsequently issued formalising this ban which were due to expire on 11 January. The new regulations in force since 11 January now leave even more tenants exposed to eviction than before.
Had the restart of possession proceedings occurred because the risk of Covid-19 had been eliminated, it may have been understandable. It has, however, come at a time when the spread of the virus was on the increase and is now threatening to overrun the NHS. It is appalling that anyone is facing eviction in the face of this public health crisis. It is outrageous that tenants who have accumulated rent arrears as a result of the impact of the pandemic should be facing eviction at all.
The government must take action immediately to stop all possession proceedings going through court until the virus has been eliminated. Properly suspending all eviction claims at court is the only way both to protect tenants and to prevent an avalanche of evictions building during this public health crisis. In addition to this, the government should set up a system of providing tenants with grants so that arrears can be cleared so that tenants truly will not be facing eviction as a result of the pandemic.