There have been further developments since this Insight was published. Please readCoronavirus: The return of evictions for up-to-date information.

A ban on hearing housing possession cases in courts in England and Wales, which was due to be lifted today (24 August), has been extended.

On Friday 21 August the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick announced a further four-week extension to 20 September, due to the pandemic. The Civil Procedure Rules were amended at short notice to achieve this.

This Insight looks at the response from tenant and landlord bodies, the legal context and calls for more help to support both landlords and tenants who are struggling financially.

A wave of evictions and homelessness?

Prior to Friday’s announcement, tenant bodies were predicting a wave of evictions and homelessness.

The homelessness charity, Shelter estimates that 227,000 private renters (3%) have fallen into rent arrears since the start of the pandemic and are at risk of losing their homes once the ban on evictions is lifted.

YouGov conducted a survey of 1,058 private renters in England between 4 and 11 June. Based on that survey, Shelter estimates that 174,000 tenants have already been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agency.

Citizens Advice reported an increase in debt advice requests of 332%. It’s seen a “huge surge in private renters worried about arrears.”

Housing lawyers argued that changes to court procedures which would have taken effect from 24 August would not adequately protect tenants where landlords use a mandatory ground for eviction, such as section 21 of the Housing Act 1988.

In contrast, landlord bodies had welcomed the return of repossession cases to provide “greater certainty for the rental market,” and strongly refuted Shelter’s claims.

The National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) cites its own survey evidence showing that 87% of tenants have continued to pay rent since lockdown. A further 8% have agreed a rent reduction, rent deferral, or reached some other agreement with their landlord or agent. The survey found that just over 3% of tenants are building up arrears.

Reactions to the four-week extension

Shelter welcomed the extension as, “good news that will buy renters and the government more time.” Citizens Advice said the additional time should be used to put more protections in place for tenants with arrears.

The NRLA described the extension as “totally unacceptable,” and called for a “comprehensive package of financial support to help landlords.”

Notice periods will be extended

In England, changes to the law already ensured that most tenants receiving a notice to quit between 26 March and 30 September would be entitled to a minimum of three months’ notice.

This also applied in Wales, but in July the Welsh Government temporarily increased notice periods from three to six months for certain tenancies. A six-month notice period now applies in Wales to notices served on or after 24 July up to 30 September.

When announcing the second extension to the evictions ban, Robert Jenrick said notice periods in England would be extended to six months: “bar those cases raising other serious issues.” An implementation date for this is awaited. Extended notices will remain in place up to 31 March 2021.

Courts to prioritise “the most serious cases”

When eviction hearings resume after 20 September, Robert Jenrick said courts will prioritise cases involving anti-social behaviour and where over a year’s rent arrears are owed.

An extended pre-action protocol

In March 2020 the UK Government said the Pre-Action Protocol for Possession Claims by Social Landlords would be widened, “to include private renters and to strengthen its remit.” Publication of the revised protocol is awaited.

The current protocol sets out steps that social landlords are expected to take regarding possession claims. The courts take account of whether the protocol has been followed when considering what orders to make.

In May, the Housing, Local Government and Communities Select Committee (HCLG) published interim findings of its inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector.

Evidence submitted cast doubt on the level of protection an extended protocol might offer where landlords use mandatory grounds for eviction.

Calls for reform

Although landlord and tenant bodies differ on the desirability of lifting the evictions ban there are areas of agreement for improved financial support for tenants. These include:

  • a temporary suspension of the five-week wait for the first payment of Universal Credit (UC)
  • the conversion of advance UC payments into grants
  • an increase in Local Housing Allowance rates to the 50th percentile at least for a temporary period.

The Welsh Government has announced Tenancy Saver Loans for private tenants whose income has fallen due to the pandemic, meaning they cannot afford their rent. Loans will be paid to the landlord or agent and are expected to be in place by September.

On 21 August the NRLA called for “a plan to support households to pay their bills and to compensate landlords fully for their lost income.”

Tenant bodies have emphasised a need for:

  • urgent legislation to prevent eviction due to rent arrears where they have arisen due to the pandemic
  • the fast-tracking of the Renters’ Reform Bill to abolish assured shorthold tenancies in England and give tenants improved security of tenure

The HCLG Select Committee supported both these calls in its May 2020 interim report. The Government response (June 2020) did not commit to implementing the committee’s recommendations in this area.

On 24 July, Housing Minister Christopher Pincher said: “We will bring forward the Renters Reform Bill as a priority once the urgencies of responding to the pandemic have passed.”

Further reading

More detailed commentary can be found in: Coronavirus: A ban on evictions and help for rough sleepers.

About the author: Wendy Wilson is Head of the Social policy section in the House of Commons Library.