Ben Reeve-Lewis from Safer Renting shares initial experiences since the announcement of the emergency freeze to evictions.
On Wednesday the 18th March 2020 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government introduced emergency measures to suspend eviction of tenants by landlords. At the time of writing the stated measures are:
- Emergency legislation to suspend new evictions from social or private rented accommodation while this national emergency is taking place
- No new possession proceedings through applications to the court to start during the crisis
- Landlords will also be protected as 3 month mortgage payment holiday is extended to Buy to Let mortgages
These emergency measures are understandably thin on legal detail and are prompted by fears of mass evictions if swathes of the country lose income and can’t pay their rent and the concomitant knock on effects to local authority homelessness services.
As the days and weeks go by the difficult by-products of the measures will become evident but some are already being felt by my team of advocates.
By close of business on the day of the announcements we dealt with two threatened cases of illegal eviction referred by our partner Boroughs at Waltham Forest and Hounslow.
Normal practice in such events is to advise the landlords on the legal requirements to obtain possession through the courts and threaten a range of sanctions, from criminal prosecution to Rent Repayment Orders and civil damages claims, should they not heed the advice they are being given and go ahead with the threat regardless.
In a significant number of cases such stern warnings are often enough to dissuade angry landlords from reckless action but in both of the cases dealt with by the Safer Renting team the landlords were aware of government announcements and pointed out that they couldn’t get possession even if they wanted to.
A fairly effective response, difficult to argue with.
In a third case the London Borough of Hounslow referred a case of occupants of an unauthorised outbuilding, where the landlord had been served with a notice of a planning breach to cease using the property for residential accommodation.
The letter threatened significant sanctions:
“Failure to comply with an enforcement notice is an offence that may result in a fine of up to £20,000 upon conviction in the Magistrate’s Court, and an unlimited fine if convicted by the Crown Court. This is not inclusive of any claims made under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002”.
All perfectly correct and in such instances, which are very commonplace, an order of this kind, as with prohibition orders, would automatically allow a landlord to obtain possession in the courts, except right now they can’t.
On the 19th March 2020 government announced that civil courts who deal with possession applications and emergency injunctions would be dealing with cases by phone conference and Skype except in cases of dire emergency.
Injunctions for re-entry in cases of illegal eviction are perhaps the most common remedy used and even in normal times are difficult and time consuming, the court phone lines not being easily accessible with waits of 40 – 60 minutes to speak to someone very much the norm.
Without access to such remedies, reinstatement, never an easy task at the best of times, is going to be very difficult indeed.
Any illegally evicted tenants eligible for homelessness assistance will push the problem directly onto the homelessness unit, as is the case with the 3 illegal evictions referred to above.
Many landlords don’t follow developments in housing news or legislation but media coverage of the suspension of evictions for three months is widely known about at the time of writing.
Urging by advisers and lawyers for landlords to follow “Due Process” in evicting their tenants fall somewhat redundant as an argument when due process has been suspended.
The embargo on evictions is needed in the broadest sense but the unforeseen side effects being seen by Safer Renting just one week or so into the crisis is a worrying sign.
 Town & Country Planning Act 1990
 S33 Housing Act 2004
Ben is a founder member of Safer Renting, a tenants rights and advocacy service working in partnership with licensing and enforcement teams of 7 London boroughs. He has been dealing with rogue landlords for 30 years and teaching housing law for 20 years. He is visiting lecturer in housing law for Middlesex University.