The latest government guidance below to include step 4 of the Lockdown Roadmap applies to England only, Click here. Some of the measures referred to also apply in Wales. See guidance for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Rent, mortgage payments and possession proceedings
The Coronavirus Act 2020 provides protection to social and private tenants by delaying when landlords can evict tenants. The provisions in the Act increased the required notice period length landlords must provide to tenants when seeking possession of a residential property, and have been extended through additional legislation.
From 1 June 2021, notice periods must be at least 4 months in most cases, including where the tenant has less than 4 months’ rent arrears. From 1 August 2021, the notice period for cases where there are less than 4 months of unpaid rent, will further reduce to 2 months’ notice. Notice periods for the most serious cases, as set out above, are lower with most requiring 2 or 4 weeks’ notice. The notice period for ‘serious arrears’ is 4 weeks’ notice and the threshold for what constitutes ‘serious arrears’ is ‘arrears equivalent to 4 or more months’ rent.
The stay on possession proceedings expired on 20 September 2020 and landlords are now able to progress their possession claim through the courts. Courts will carefully prioritise the most egregious cases, such as those involving anti-social behaviour and other crimes.
From 1 June, bailiffs can send out eviction notices and enforce evictions. Given the requirement to provide 14 days’ notice, no evictions are expected until mid-June, except in the most egregious cases and bailiffs have been asked not to carry out an eviction if anyone living in the property has COVID-19 symptoms or is self-isolating.
The government has published new guidance for landlords and tenants on the possession action process through the courts.
- Tenants should continue to pay rent and abide by all other terms of their tenancy agreement to the best of their ability. The government has made a strong package of financial support available to tenants, and where they can pay the rent as normal, they should do. Tenants who are unable to do so should speak to their landlord at the earliest opportunity.
- In many, if not most cases, the COVID-19 outbreak will not affect tenants’ ability to pay rent. If a tenant’s ability to pay will be affected, it’s important that they have an early conversation with their landlord. Rent levels agreed in the tenancy agreement remain legally due and tenants should discuss with their landlord if they are in difficulty.
- An early conversation between landlord and tenant can help both parties to agree a plan if tenants are struggling to pay their rent. This can include reaching a temporary agreement not to seek possession action for a period of time and instead accept a lower level of rent, or agree a plan to pay off arrears at a later date. However, landlords are not required to stop charging rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach, as each tenant’s circumstance is different, and some will be worse affected in terms of their ability to pay than others. It is important for landlords to be flexible and have a frank and open conversation with their tenants at the earliest opportunity, to allow both parties to agree a sensible way forward. If a landlord and tenant agree a plan to pay off arrears, it is important they both stick to this plan, and that tenants talk to their landlord immediately if they are unable to do so.
- The government has worked with the National Residential Landlords Association to produce a guide to managing arrears and avoiding possession claims in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which private landlords and tenants may find useful to consult. The free guide includes golden rules for dealing with rent disputes and a downloadable ‘Pre-Action Plan for Managing Arrears and avoiding Possession Claims’.
- Where appropriate, if disputes over rent or other matters persist, landlords and tenants are encouraged to consider mediation. Mediation allows an independent third-party to assist those involved to try to reach a mutually acceptable agreement to resolve their dispute. The government is funding a pilot mediation service for cases that have reached the courts from February 2021 which will be free for landlords and tenants to us (see mediation section below).
If a landlord is concerned about their financial situation they should discuss this with their lender. The Financial Conduct Authority has been clear that for borrowers including those with a Buy to Let mortgage, who have been impacted by COVID-19, firms should continue to provide support through tailored forbearance options. These could include making reduced or no payments for a temporary period, or changing the mortgage term.
Further information on mortgages and the support available during the COVID-19 outbreak is available from the Money Advice Service and UK Finance.
Ending tenancies early
- As part of the national effort to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak it’s important that landlords offer support and understanding to tenants who may start to see their income fluctuate. This may include allowing tenants to end the tenancy by giving less notice than allowed for in the tenancy agreement or permitting them to end the tenancy before the fixed term expires.
- Technically, tenants are liable to pay the rent for the whole of the contractual notice period, or for the whole of the fixed term but, if a new tenant can be found quickly, allowing the agreement to end early need not cause you to suffer any loss.
- Landlords can charge a fee to tenants if the tenant wishes to end the tenancy early, although this fee must not exceed the loss incurred by the landlord or reasonable costs to the landlord’s letting agent if they are using one. The government’s guidance on the Tenant Fees Act contains more information
Tenants leaving the property without providing proper notice
If landlords believe that their tenant has left the property but has not surrendered the tenancy – by, for example, notifying them in writing and/or returning the keys – they should verify that they have left the property before taking any further action.
Landlords could do this by using any contact information which the tenant submitted at the start of the tenancy, such as contacts for rent guarantors or friends and family. If they are still unable to locate their tenant, they may wish to use a tracing agent.
The tenant has a right to the quiet enjoyment of their property and should be given 24 hours’ notice of any visit to the property. Landlords may only enter the property in the case of an emergency, and in this case only when accompanied by an independent witness who will be able to record the situation in writing.
If landlords change the locks or enter the property and have not got confirmation that their tenant has left, a court may find that they have evicted their tenant illegally and could receive a custodial sentence or a fine if convicted.
New court arrangements
- Following the reopening of the courts on 21 September 2020, new arrangements have been put in place to ensure that all parties have access to justice and the appropriate support.
- Court rules are currently in force which require landlords who are making a possession claim to set out any information they are aware of about how their tenant, or any dependant of their tenant, has been affected by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Where the claim relates to rent arrears, landlords will also need to provide an updated rent account for the previous 2 years in advance of the hearing. Where any of this information is not provided, judges can adjourn proceedings until the requirement to provide it has been met.
- Where a landlord is seeking possession as a result of suffering financial difficulty due to the pandemic, the landlord can draw that to the court’s attention by marking the claim ‘COVID-19’. Likewise, tenants who are challenging a possession claim can inform the court of how they have been impacted by the pandemic, marking their challenge ‘COVID-19’. Information supporting the ‘COVID-19’ marking must be provided.
- Landlords must complete an N244 application and submit it to the court where the possession claim was filed, accompanied by the relevant fee. See the latest Court Fees.
- The judiciary are prioritising the most serious cases for action. As a guide, priority will be given to claims issued before the stay commenced in March 2020, and to cases involving anti-social behaviour, extreme rent arrears, domestic abuse, fraud and deception, illegal occupiers and squatters or abandonment of a property, unlawful subletting, and cases concerning what was allocated as temporary accommodation by an authority.
- A new review stage has been introduced. The review will take place at least 28 days before the substantive hearing and will enable tenants to access free legal advice through a duty solicitor. The court will send both landlord and tenant details of the review date and provide details of how the tenant can book an appointment with a duty solicitor. It is important for the landlord to be available on the review appointment date to discuss the case with the duty solicitor, and for tenants to book an appointment with a duty solicitor on the review date so that they can obtain free advice and assistance on their circumstances.
- A new mediation pilot integrated into the court process is supporting landlords and renters who face court procedures and potential eviction to resolve issues without the need for a formal hearing. For more information, see the Mediation section below.
- As detailed above, legislation preventing bailiff enforcement of evictions has now expired. This was in place from 17 November 2020 until 31 May 2021. Therefore, orders can now be enforced where the landlord has a valid warrant of possession. Bailiffs must provide 14 days’ notice of an eviction and have been asked not to carry out an eviction if they are made aware that anyone living in the property has COVID-19 symptoms or is self-isolating.
- For more information on how the possession action process works in the county court- including more details about making and defending claims and the new court arrangements which have been put in place to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, you should consult the guidance on understanding the possession action process.
However, in certain cases, the government recognises it is important that landlords can progress cases within shorter timeframes. Anti-social behaviour in properties can place undue pressure on landlords, other tenants and local communities. Therefore, from 29 August 2020, for notices in relation to anti-social behaviour, certain cases of domestic abuse in the social sector and rioting, the required notice periods have returned to their pre-Coronavirus Act 2020 lengths.
In some cases, this means that proceedings for anti-social behaviour can be brought immediately after notice has been served. Notice periods on these grounds otherwise vary, depending on the type of tenancy and ground used, between 2 weeks and 1 month. Please see the Technical guidance on eviction notices for further information.
When the required notice period has elapsed, and if the tenant has not vacated the property, landlords will be able to apply to the court for an order for possession. The Judiciary are prioritising the most serious cases for action, including those involving anti-social behaviour.
If anyone feels threatened by someone’s behaviour, they should always contact the police.