Since 27 March, all new and existing possession proceedings against residential tenants have been stayed. Initially the stay was brought in for a period of 90 days, however, the Government announcement in June that the stay would be extended until 23 August 2020.
With just over a month until the end of the extension date, the Civil Procedure Rules Committee have agreed rule changes to be applied to possession proceedings when the stay comes to an end and proceedings can once again resume.
Compliance Officer for The Guild of Property Professionals, Paul Offley, says that on Friday, 17 July the Government laid the necessary statutory instrument to implement changes to the Civil Procedure Rules, which will come into force on 23 August. “As part of the next phase of the Government’s response to moving out of the emergency measures put in place as a result of COVID-19, the stay on possession cases will be lifted. The Government has said that while it is important to ensure that all people have the appropriate access to justice and steps are taken towards transitioning out of emergency measures to allow the market to operate, it is vital to recognise that further steps may be needed to protect the most vulnerable,” says Offley.
He adds that landlords will be required to follow strict procedures if they wish to gain possession of the property, depending on the type of tenancy agreement in place and the terms of it. The Government has been consulting with a working group convened by the Master of the Rolls, to consider arrangements that will mean the courts are better able to address the need for appropriate protection of all parties in the current legislative framework once proceedings commence.
According to Offley, the new rules state that when a landlord is seeking possession of their property, they will be required to set out in their claim any relevant information about a tenant’s circumstances, including information on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on a tenant’s vulnerability or social security position. “The rules will apply to all possession proceedings whether new or existing and will include accelerated possession proceedings. In the instance where the required information in not provided, it will be possible for judges to adjourn proceedings. The new rules will remain in place until the end of March next year, however, could be extended if necessary,” adds Offley.
He continues that under the new rules, landlords will also be required to notify both the Court and their tenant of their continued desire to seek repossession before the case proceeds. Again, this includes accelerated possession cases. “The reason behind the rule is to ensure the Court’s time is used effectively and on the right cases. If the matter has been resolved through another means, the case can be withdrawn, something the Government is encouraging landlords to do rather than pursuing non-priority cases through the courts. With the expected backlog once the stay is lifted, the Government is eager to only have cases that are a priority go through the courts if possible. Priority cases have been defined as those that include anti-social behaviour, extreme rent arrears, domestic abuse, cases involving squatters, fraud or unlawful subletting,” Offley explains. “If a case does not fall into the category of being a priority, the Government is encouraging parties to use an independent third-party mediator to assist them in reaching a mutually acceptable agreement to resolve their dispute, rather than going to court.”
Other changes that have already been agreed include:
• The court will have flexibility on setting the date for the court hearing to allow it to fix a date either on or after the claim form is issued to the landlord. (Currently a hearing date is set at the same time as the claim form is issued)
• The requirement to fix a hearing 8 weeks after the claim form is issued to landlords will be suspended.
• Landlords will need to provide a rent arrears history in advance of the hearing (rather than providing at the hearing itself).
• High Court bailiffs will be required to provide notice of the eviction date to the tenant, in the same way that notice is provided by county court bailiffs. The notice will include information on how the tenant can apply to suspend the eviction and where to go to for advice.
Other measures might be considered to support the reopening of the courts, such as arrangements to facilitate hearings and appropriate access to legal representation.