In a somewhat surprising government announcement released late Friday afternoon the Government confirmed that the current stay of possession proceedings will be extended for a further 4 weeks.
The moratorium on possession proceedings (originally announced in March 2020) which had been branded as the perfect solution to protect renters who had lost income due to COVID-19 was due to be lifted on Sunday 23 August 2020.
The stay continues to apply to all possession claims regardless of the stage they were pre COVID-19. Whilst the wording from the Government continues to suggest that new possession claims can still be issued, these claims will not progress to a stage where a tenant risks being evicted and will be automatically stayed at the point it is received by the Court.
Additionally (and even more surprisingly), the Housing Secretary has announced a new 6 month notice period for all but those cases raising serious anti-social behaviour issues which will be in place until at least 31 March 2021. This reinforces the Government’s previous message that no tenant will be evicted during these unprecedented times (irrespective of the reason).
The Government has taken unprecedented action to support tenants during the pandemic and the announcement on Friday will do little to ease the concerns of landlords who are losing money daily through unpaid rent and for who the continuance of the stay means they cannot regain possession of those properties to re-let them.
Whilst the Government has confirmed that (once evictions restart) the Court will carefully prioritise the most serious cases involving “anti-social behaviour and other crimes, as well as whether landlord have not received rent for over a year and would otherwise face unmanageable debts”. The coming months will surely expose the effect of this on Landlords who may now have had over half a year of unpaid rent and financial hardship.
It appears the procedural requirements following the lift of the stay remain unchanged and once this extension has expired a ‘reactivation notice’ will need to be filed with the Court. Without this notice, the proceedings will remain stayed.
The requirements for the ‘reactivation notice’ are fairly robust, and go beyond simply asking a Court to relist hearings to progress cases. Whilst no specific guidance has been released by the Government specifying the content of the notice, Practice Direction 55C makes it clear that the notice must confirm that the party filing and serving the notice wishes the case to be progressed and set out what knowledge that party has as to the effect of the Coronavirus pandemic on the Defendant and their dependants. It is anticipated that this will require landlords to pro-actively make enquiries with a tenant regarding the impact the virus has had on their health, their finances, their employment, and their family situation.
The rules are ever changing and therefore it may be the case that the rules are varied again and therefore Landlords should always keep a keen eye on the latest developments and seek legal advice in the event of any uncertainty. Please bear in mind that the Courts are still operating. Landlords do still have the ability to seek urgent injunctions in the face of serious anti-social behaviour, or a lack of access so gas safety checks or urgent repairs can be carried out. As far as seeking possession is concerned however, the Government’s thumb remains firmly on the pause button.