Almost nine million households, more than a third of all families in Britain, rent from a private landlord, a council or a housing association.
Because of coronavirus, many are now in financial need. Nearly two million claims for universal credit have been made since lockdown measures were announced in the UK. Welfare claimants are entitled to payments equivalent to housing benefit. But, as a result of changes made to benefits over the last decade (like the bedroom tax and restrictions to local housing allowance), it is increasingly rare for housing benefit to pay all of a tenant’s rent.
Others, although ineligible for universal credit, are also in difficulty: because they have received a redundancy cheque that will soon be spent, or their self-employed grant hasn’t arrived yet. Then there are furloughed workers, paid now, but waiting for news of redundancies from their employer.
All possession hearings – the main step in evicting a tenant – are “stayed”. In other words on hold. On 25 June the housing courts will reopen for business. Judges will have to determine thousands of stayed pre-coronavirus cases, and the even greater number of new claims for possession arising from the lockdown.
The housing minister, Robert Jenrick, announced that the government was working closely with judges to draft a “pre-action protocol” for when the stay is lifted. The protocol will “enable tenants to have an added degree of protection, because instead of embarking upon the eviction proceedings immediately, there will be a duty upon their landlords to reach out to them, discuss their situation, and try to find an affordable repayment plan”.
The problem with the protocol is that it is toothless – essentially depending on the benevolence of landlords.
Section 21 provides that where a landlord has complied with certain procedural requirements (like issuing a notice using the correct form and waiting for a prescribed time before applying to court) the court must order possession. The statute does not require a landlord to have complied with the government’s proposed pre-action protocol. For that reason, even where landlords have rushed to issue proceedings, and have ignored requests from tenants to defer payments for a short time, judges will be required to approve evictions.
Ground 8 provides that where a tenant is in rent arrears (eight weeks if the rent is due weekly), both when the landlord serves a notice on them and when the hearing takes place, the court must order possession. Again, the court takes no account of the landlord’s conduct; it focuses simply on the amount of the tenant’s arrears. In these circumstances, if the new protocol is as the minister describes it, it will not protect tenants at all.
Without the abolition of section 21 and ground 8, possibly millions of people can be forced out of their homes.