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Implications of Coronavirus: Protection from eviction for tenants

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Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the government has at times struggled to keep pace with the rapidity of the spread.  This has resulted in piecemeal implementation of measures, and at times, dissemination of conflicting information.

As a nation we are used to order and clear executive instruction, though struggle to cope with ambiguity. Our angst is compounded when it impacts on our well-being or livelihood. Whilst we fervently seek to defend our incomes, protection of our homes rank higher still. The initial message from the Chancellor was that jobs would be protected, though he conceded with some indifference, that inevitably some will be lost. With regards to the protection of our homes however, the government has been resolute in that tenants will not be made homeless. Fortunately, the law is unequivocal on this point.

The Coronavirus Act (CA) 2020 came into force on 26 March and crystalised the instructions outlined by the government in the now familiar evening press conferences. There is clear guidance on what landlords can and cannot do during this difficult period.

As a tenant, your right to occupy is carved from one of a number of different laws. Each gives rise to a process to be followed should a landlord wish to regain possession of their property, be it that the tenancy has reached its natural conclusion, or in the event of a tenant default. Whilst the CA is detailed in both regards, I will focus on the latter.

Due to the requirement to prevent the spread of the virus, we are all instructed to remain home. This regrettably has financial consequences for some tenants and impinges on their ability to pay rent. Whilst the government have encouraged mortgage lenders to be considerate of homeowners experiencing difficulty, legislation is needed to ensure that residential and corporate tenants are not at the mercy of their landlords discretion.

Non-payment of rent is a breach of a tenancy agreement that could give rise to a landlord seeking to regain possession of their property. In order to commence such a process, a landlord is required to give ‘notice’ to the tenant. Amongst other information contained in the notice is the date when they wish the property to be vacated by. The earliest date of possession is set in law. Should the tenant decide not to vacate by this time, the landlord can seek the courts assistance to evict the tenant and gain possession with the benefit of a warrant.

Hitherto, the notice period required varies due to the circumstances of the breach and type of tenancy, though the CA has unified them all in one regard. As of 30 March 2020, no landlord can give less than 3 months notice to a tenant before seeking possession.

It is important to understand that this does not mean that tenants are entitled to stop paying their rent. To do so would result in an accumulation of a debt to the landlord.  More importantly however, doing so would trigger a breach that could give rise to notice being served and the commencement of repossession proceedings.

The act does not work as a shield protecting tenants for non-payment of rent, though in practice affords them 3 months protection before the landlord can seek possession of the property. Prior to CA, where a landlord might ordinarily have issued notice on 1st April entitling them to seek possession 4 weeks later on 1st May, they now have to wait  3 months until 1st July before taking possession. Should the tenant not vacate by this date, the landlord would be entitled to move to the next stage of seeking eviction following a court possession hearing.

Although the CA is in place as of 30th March, claims in the system from 27 March will be subject to a 90-day suspension of possession hearings and orders. Under the CA, there is power for the government to extend the 3-month period should the circumstances require it. This could be as a result of the isolation period being extended beyond 3 months for example.

In addition to creating the act, the head of the judiciary has written to the courts asking them to prioritise applications and suspend evictions or orders that risk impacting on public health.

On a practical note, if you are experiencing difficulty in meeting your rent obligations, you should contact your landlord immediately and inform them of your circumstances.  If you are unable to come to an arrangement, you are afforded the protection from eviction under CA for 3 months from the point that you are served with notice to terminate your tenancy.

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