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23 July, 2020 Open access

Housing Minister confirms that, after stay on evictions is lifted, courts will have no discretion to take account of COVID-19 circumstances where possession orders are sought under mandatory grounds

Responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons, Christopher Pincher says he is 'convinced' that the right balance has been struck between tenants’ needs and landlords’ rights

Housing Minister Christopher Pincher has confirmed that, after the stay on evictions is lifted next month in England and Wales, courts will have no discretion to take account of circumstances relating to coronavirus (COVID-19) where possession orders are sought under mandatory grounds.

With the stay on possession proceedings, introduced by Practice Direction 51Z (PD) in March 2020 to protect those affected by the coronavirus pandemic from losing their homes, due to end on 23 August 2020, Shadow Secretary of State for Housing Thangam Debonnaire was granted an urgent question in the House of Commons yesterday seeking a statement from the government on 'the implications of the end of the evictions ban'.

Highlighting that the Housing Secretary promised in a statement on 18 March 2020 that no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, Ms Debonnaire asked - 

'The evictions ban ends on 23 August. The Government have failed to plan for what happens next. That failure looks set to lead to evictions and homelessness this autumn... Current law makes evictions mandatory, with no court discretion, if tenants are in two months’ of arrears under ground 8, section 8 of the Housing Act 1988, and discretionary evictions can still be made under section 21, which the Government have promised to abolish but so far have not done so. They could have prevented people from falling into arrears by adjusting social security or bringing in emergency temporary legal changes, but they have chosen not to.

What assessment have the Government made of likely numbers of people facing homelessness? What consideration have they given to public health, with possibly thousands of households becoming homeless as we go into winter? What resources have they provided to councils for the cost of additional advisers and emergency and other accommodation? Will the Minister admit that yesterday’s practice direction will make no material difference to the outcomes for tenants with arrears, as eviction laws remain unchanged?'

Addressing the practice direction (PD55C) referred to - which, in part, requires a landlord seeking possession to provide any relevant information about the defendant’s circumstances to include information on the effect of the pandemic on the defendant and his/her dependants, which will enable the court to have regard to vulnerability, disability, and social security position, and those who are 'shielding' - Mr Pincher responded - 

'... we are moving out of the worst of the epidemic, and we are moving through a transition phase. It is right that we normalise proceedings and procedures. To that effect, I have had conversations with the Master of the Rolls and with Sir Robin Knowles. They have been quite clear that they want to ensure that courts act properly to hear landlords’ and tenants’ concerns. They ​are also very clear that, should a landlord not provide requisite information to the courts about the effect of covid-19 on a tenant when the landlord brings forward an application, the courts will have power to adjourn the case, which will hit the landlord in the pocket - something that will focus the landlords’ minds.

I have been told by many stakeholders and representatives, including the National Residential Landlords Association, that this will definitely be a wake-up call to landlords. It will also be of definite support to tenants, so I am convinced that we have struck the right balance between tenants’ needs and the landlords’ rights.'

However, pressed further by the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee Clive Betts on the point that the court will not be able to take into account the defendant's circumstances as a result of the pandemic where there are mandatory grounds for possession, Mr Pincher conceded - 

'Under the section 21 rules of the 1988 Act, the courts do not have discretion in that particular circumstance, but I am sure that in those cases where egregious rent arrears predate the covid emergency, where there is domestic abuse or where there is antisocial behaviour, we want to see the landlord have their right to bring forward their repossession case.'

NB - rejecting a request to bring in emergency legislation to prevent unnecessary evictions ahead of the Renters' Reform Bill which is due to abolish section 21 evictions, Mr Pincher added - 

'We will bring forward the renters’ reform Bill, which will be the biggest rent change and tenancy change in a generation, when it is appropriate. In the meantime, we will continue to support tenants and landlords through the measures that I have already outlined.'

The urgent question debate on Rented Homes: End of Evictions Ban is available from parliament.uk