Evictions to continue despite COVID-19 public health emergency

Published: by Ruth Ehrlich

We are facing a global crisis. Government guidance has been clear: you must stay home to avoid spreading coronavirus (COVID-19). And from those who are the most vulnerable to the people who need to self-isolate, and for everyone else instructed to stay home to avoid spreading the virus, secure housing is now critical to the safety of the nation.

That’s why we breathed a sigh of relief last week when the government announced a temporary end to evictions and welcomed the Secretary of State’s determination to take swift and decisive action.

But the reality of legislation now brought forward by the Government – which simply extends notice periods to three months – falls well short of what we believe is necessary to make the Secretary’s of State’s intentions to protect people who are at risk of becoming homeless during this outbreak a reality. It means renters will continue to worry about being able to keep a roof over their heads during a time when the government is clear that we should be focusing on protecting our health and the health of the people around us.

Last night’s legislation simply extends the notice period that landlords must give tenants – both social and private – before they can evict them through a court process. Renters who are currently in their notice period will still be expected to leave at the end of the period and can expect to be evicted through the courts if they do not. Many will leave their homes during the next three months. Moreover, the legislation does nothing to invalidate eviction notices served by landlords during the period dated for June. Given most renters who receive these will simply move out by the date given rather than risk a court process, it means these too will add to the numbers of tenants losing their homes in a period where we trying to keep people at home.

Today, the government have said that they reserve the power to extend the notice period again. But a further extension of the notice period will do nothing for those already given notice. So those already in the system and those who are told by their landlord they are being evicted over the coming weeks will not benefit from any further extension the government offers.

This legislation simply won’t give renters the protection they need – and that the reality is people will continue to be evicted in the coming weeks and months.

Evictions are still taking place

Our legal services are still attending court to help people who are at imminent risk of homelessness. While we have heard of some sensible judges and courts adjourning possession cases for at least three months, that’s not happening everywhere, and even turning up at court to defend the case will be a risk for many people who should be isolating or shielded.

The government needs to introduce decisive legislation that would stop people from losing their homes at a time when staying in their home is so important.

Without urgent legislation or instruction to the court, we could see thousands of people who have already received an eviction notice evicted from their homes with nowhere to go. And even for other renters, increasing the notice period to three months simply tells them that they can still be evicted – it will just be a little later than normal. Given the government guidance has been steadfast in its message to ‘stay at home’, it is vital that they take urgent steps to make this possible for people at risk of eviction.

Private renters remain at risk

Increasing the length of the eviction notice for private renters does nothing to prevent evictions taking place now. Renters in their notice period will continue to be forced to try and find an alternative home while still facing all normal barriers of affordability and discrimination – or risk sofa-surfing or sleeping on the streets. And of course it will be much harder than usual to access all the services needed to find a new home and move, or to get help from councils or charities.

Over the three months of April–June last year, we estimate around 20,000 were evicted through the courts, with more leaving before because they know a court proceeding is coming. And it could be even worse this year –our services are hearing from people who have been threatened with eviction or served with eviction notices because of COVID-19, including NHS workers on the frontline. The government’s legislation will not protect those served with eviction notices in the past few weeks and those renters will come to the end of their notice period and find themselves with nowhere to live while the outbreak is ongoing. Health workers served an eviction notice for June will not be protected by this legislation.

We know that the imbalanced relationship between landlord and tenant leaves renters fearful of exercising even their most basic rights, such as asking for repairs. It is unreasonable to expect private renters to be forthcoming with their landlords about financial difficulties, or to risk losing income by avoiding work, if they know their landlord can still serve them a section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction notice.

Fundamentally, this crisis highlights the urgent need to ban no-fault evictions, so that no landlord will be able to evict an NHS worker because of their profession again. But the nature of the emergency means we need to act now with temporary measures. 

Current advice is inadequate

The Lord Chief Justice issued advice last week, which among other things calls for:

  • block possession lists to be suspended so as to avoid having 30 people waiting in a small room at a time
  • judges to consider public health advice when making possession orders

While this advice is welcome, we see on a daily basis that it is not stopping people being evicted; across the country our legal services have reported disarray in the courts, with many courts still operating block lists while some judges take the sensible measure to adjourn cases for a minimum of three months.

Advising judges to ‘consider public health advice’ is too vague to give judges any meaningful guidance, since every possession order has implications for public health.

What needs to be done?

Fortunately for government, there are multiple different ways they could actually stop evictions and ensure no one becomes homeless in this time.

The Lord Chancellor or senior judiciary can take the simple step to require courts to postpone listings until a later date so that all possession cases are pushed back to the summer. This would ensure that no one is made homeless via the courts during the COVID-19 crisis. Any risk that this measure might be open to judicial review could be removed by a provision that any party may apply to vary the order in their particular circumstances.

Alternatively, the government can legislate to immediately suspend all possession proceedings and bailiff warrants.  

However government chooses to proceed, one thing is clear: the actions taken thus far will not stop tens of thousands of people from losing their home in the next three months – and the implications will be severe.

Since this blog was published, government agreed with court services that all possession proceedings would be halted for 90 days with the possibility of extension.

Anyone needing housing advice should visit Shelter’s housing advice.