GMLC campaign volunteer Callum Ward summarises The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s recent research into possession proceedings, highlighting how the use of mandatory grounds is making people homeless without a chance to defend themselves – often in a matter of minutes.
As the legal system wrestles with the devastating impact of Covid, the lack of financial resources and government apathy have left large numbers of people this year facing open-and-shut evictions finalised in a matter of minutes.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has conducted important research considering 555 eviction cases that were recently in the courts. Their research reveals that, due to ‘mandatory grounds’, judges have become powerless in preventing a large percentage of this year’s evictions. As many as 85% of eviction proceedings have left them with no scope to take the personal circumstances of tenants into account, with one in five having involved the brutal Section 21 ‘no fault eviction’ order.
The impact of Covid-19 was explicitly mentioned in a third of all hearings where a possession order was granted, yet the existing rules left judges with no choice but to order an eviction.
The investigation has brought up some startling statistics. Often life-changing decisions are made in an average of nine minutes and 40 seconds. Even more pressing is that 60% of hearings often involve neither the tenants nor their lawyer, leading to a crisis of adequate representation in court. Many of these tenants will not have had legal counsel during any stage of their eviction due to the difficulties obtaining free advice and representation after this decade’s devastating cuts to legal aid.
The lack of government action in preventing an increase in Section 21 orders has caused misery for tenants. Legislation proposed from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee argued for judges to be allowed to use their discretion in each individual case. Instead, possession hearings were paused in March 2020 and started again on September 2020, but few additional protections were provided and then were removed swiftly by October 2021.
The Human Cost
It is the human cost of these decisions, coupled with the negative impact of Covid, that TBIJ finds most important to highlight. TBIJ brings to our attention the case of Mohammed*, recently evicted from his home along with his wife and three children. His plight involving a hospitalisation for a mental breakdown and a loss of earnings as a taxi driver was ignored. Whenever he attempted to speak in court and explain his personal circumstances, he was met with silence and indifference, or even shut down. “The problem is, this is ground 8 – a mandatory ground – and the claimant has fulfilled all the criteria,” the judge explained. “I’ve no option but to grant possession.” Mohammed and his family were given 42 days before the bailiffs would be called in.
The pandemic already had a seismic impact on minority groups in the UK, with this causing a knock-on effect for evictions and possession orders. TBIJ’s research suggests that17% of those that received legal aid for their hearings were Black British, with a disproportionately high number facing evictions in the courts.
Gig economy workers have also been hit hard by Covid and rising eviction rates. Delivery drivers such as Rudy Bozart, also considered in the TBIJ research, have seen their debts rising throughout the year, with the pandemic “financially destroying him”. Rudy was one of 8,700 people in England who approached their council as homeless because of a ‘no fault’ eviction.
Even though the government pledged to abolish Section 21 several years ago, the renters’ reform package appears to have been halted. Unless a tenant can get early legal advice and find something technically incorrect with the way a Section 21 Notice has been served (a fairly technical exercise that generally requires expert advice and support), Section 21 often leads to open-and-shut cases with no prospect of a successful outcome.
The importance of this research for housing campaigners cannot be understated. It provides evidence of the Covid evictions wave we knew was coming, shows the devastating impact of mandatory grounds such as Ground 8 and Section 21, and highlights the need for vital support for those facing a ‘cliff edge’ of evictions and homelessness.