The increasing number of tenants teetering on, and falling over the cliff-edge of eviction, caused by inflexible rental laws is revealed in an investigation into possession hearings, which lead the way to eviction warrants being issued, carried out in civil courts across the country.
The data highlights the growing risk to tenants of losing their home following the lift of the eviction ban by the government in May of this year, which was brought in at the height of the pandemic to help tenants keep their homes during the Covid lockdowns.
Until now, little data on possession hearings in court during the pandemic had been published. The Bureau of Investigative journalism collaborated with reporters across 29 different civil courts in England and Wales during July and August of this year. Of the 555 rental cases logged, 71 hearings were documented in Manchester Civil Justice Centre.
The data shows a staggering 85 per cent of the 555 rental property possession cases documented were brought on mandatory grounds, meaning a possession order and a subsequent eviction warrant for the tenant, is a highly likely outcome of the hearing. It took an average of just 10 minutes for the life-changing decisions to award a possession order against a tenant, to be made across the courts.
In response to the pandemic the government extended notice periods that landlords give to tenants to vacate a home to six months and implemented a ban on bailiff evictions from 17 November 2020 to 31 May 2021, alongside pausing possession hearings for six months between 27 March 2020 and 20 September 2020.
Pre-pandemic in the three months from April to June in 2019 there were 22,105 claims and possession orders went through the courts across England and Wales. Due to the pause in possession hearings the number of total hearings dropped to 4,085 during July to September 2020, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice.
The recommencement of possession hearings saw cases increase threefold to 12,431 claims and possession orders from April to June of this year.
And these court numbers may be the visible part of a much larger problem, as many Section 21 notices, also called “no fault” evictions, never make it to court. From the start of the Covid crisis 15,126 “no fault” evictions have avoided being heard in court by being processed on paper instead.
Judy’s eviction case
Judy, a tenant in her early 50s from Rusholme, faced eviction from the home she and her two sons, aged 18 and 21, have lived in for the last 11 years, during a hearing in Manchester. As well as suffering from mental health problems, Judy’s physical health prevented her from working during the pandemic. A duty solicitor represented Judy in court, but she was not given the opportunity to voice her struggles during the hearing.
After the mandatory possession order was made against her in August, Judy told The Meteor:
“Trying to get through to Shelter is impossible, and I wasn’t aware of a lot of the legal stuff. I was more focused on staying alive, and I had so much anxiety over my mortality and family and children’s mortality that I wasn’t even thinking about clearing off rent arrears. As far as I was concerned, it looked so daunting. I didn’t even know I would even be alive to reach court dates, et cetera. I’m not exaggerating, this is genuinely how I felt.
“And then I didn’t even get a chance to speak today at court and give my say on how the pandemic has affected me. Not even just me, but how it’s affected people generally. I’m lucky I can articulate myself, but a lot of people can’t. It feels like we’re set up to fail.
“I came prepared with everything I wanted to say, but it didn’t matter. I honestly felt powerless.”
The judge stated that he was “aware that local authorities aren’t the quickest with housing in the best of times” but had to make the possession order legally because two months rent was owed.
At the beginning of lockdown, in March 2020, former secretary of state for housing Robert Jenrick tweeted, “no one should lose their home as a result of the #coronavirus epidemic”, and emergency measures were put in place to protect tenants facing financial hardship from eviction. But the data gathered by TBIJ highlights the inadequate level of support renters were provided.
A government spokesperson told TBIJ:
“Our £352 billion support package has helped renters throughout the pandemic and prevented a build-up of rent arrears. We also took unprecedented action to help keep people in their homes by extending notice periods and pausing evictions at the height of the pandemic.
“As the economy reopens, it is right that these measures are now being lifted and we are delivering a fairer and more effective private rental sector that works for both landlords and tenants.”
Additionally, the government announced a Universal Credit uplift of £20 a week to “strengthen the safety net” during the pandemic and offer support for household finances, which is now due to end on 6 October. Data from the Department for Work and Pensions shows Universal Credit claimants during the pandemic doubled to 6 million nationally, and increased from 309,295 Greater Manchester claimants in December 2020 to 322,833 in June 202.
However, these temporary amendments only postponed the inevitable for precarious tenants. Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter, told TBIJ:
“With only days until the Covid protections of furlough and the Universal Credit uplift are removed, more renters will be in danger of losing their homes in the months ahead. So it’s vital that renters get financial help to clear ‘Covid’ arrears. Alongside this, the government must boost legal aid funding to cover debt and benefit problems – so renters can get crucial early advice to stop a small problem from becoming a crisis that puts their home at risk.”
Mandatory grounds for eviction
The data collated by the TBIJ and The Meteor in Manchester County Court, documents the specific grounds for 34 of the 71 cases. The data shows that 65 percent, 22 out of 34, were brought on the grounds that meant a possession order was mandatory, unless procedural protocol had not been followed in the order, despite a third of the cases explicitly mentioning Covid as a relevant factor. Of the 34 cases, 15 were brought on Section 8, Ground 8 – a rent arrears notice served when a tenant is two months behind on payments. Additionally, six cases were sought on Section 21, “no-fault” eviction. A notice that allows private landlords to seek possession without giving any reason, which the Conservative party pledged to abolish in 2019. Failure to follow through on that promise has resulted in 1 out of 5 national cases where the legal basis was logged (55 out of 265), involving Section 21.
A hearing witnessed at Manchester County Court in August highlights the bleak nature of a “no fault” eviction. A 42-day possession order was made against a tenant and his former partner, suffering from terminal cancer. There was a disagreement in court whether the correct procedure was followed for requesting one tenant be removed from the tenancy. The lack of evidence on what knowledge the landlord had of the couple separating caused a “he said, she said” trivial dispute between the former partners, which led to a terminally ill woman, and her ex-partner, now at risk of homelessness because of the inflexibility of a mandatory “no fault” eviction.
Since the Conservative government began implementing austerity cuts just over a decade ago, Manchester has been suffering from a housing and homelessness crisis, which has led to a 27 per cent rise in numbers of households on the housing waiting list from 11,715 in 2016 to 14,927 in 2020. Illustrating the leading cause of homelessness in the region being eviction from private tenancy, the TBIJ data records that approximately 41 of the 71 cases involved private landlords seeking possession, and the remaining amount were social landlords.
Commenting on the findings of The Bureau’s investigation, MP Clive Betts, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, said:
“It is saddening to read the results of this research, which show that huge numbers of renting households, including families, have been pushed out of their homes since the lifting of the evictions ban.
“The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has called on the Government to bring forward a specific financial package to support tenants to repay rent arrears caused by Covid-19, and to accelerate plans to abolish ‘no fault evictions’ under section 21 of the Housing Act. Unfortunately, this research shows the impact of this not having been done.
“As the pandemic continues and we head into winter, there remains a need for urgent government action on these issues to help avoid evictions and the devastating impacts of homelessness.”
Private Rented Sector and Legal Aid issues
A report published by Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) states that “growth in the private rented sector (PRS) in Greater Manchester has outpaced that of the North West and England and Wales and it is anticipated that the PRS is likely to continue to grow in size” whilst social housing has drastically decreased. Despite the region having lower private rents than the national average, Greater Manchester has 20.5% more low-income households than the English average, meaning tenants, particularly in the PRS, experience financial hardships that will have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The government’s latest Household Resilience Survey found that private renters found it more challenging to keep up with rent payments from June to July 2020 due to being furloughed or working fewer hours.
In response to the findings on Manchester, a spokesperson for Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) told the Meteor:
“Legal Aid used to be available to help sort out rent problems early and challenge bad benefit decisions which caused the arrears. Now Legal Aid is only available at the end stage when the landlord has fixed to evict and served notice or issued proceedings.
“Unless the government get rid of Section 21 and the grounds that mandate a possession order, tenants will never get a fair hearing at court because the judge’s hands are tied, and fairness is out of the equation. Without legal representation, this unfairness is only compounded.”
Another case documented at Manchester County Court was brought on the controversial Section 21 notice. The male tenant was represented by a duty solicitor who explicitly mentioned the pandemic and mental health issues as reasons for the delay in responding to the first possession order. The duty solicitor asked the judge to exercise his discretion “in the interests of justice” as his client would be forced into homelessness if evicted. Despite the pleas and extreme consequences of an eviction, the judge was forced to make a mandatory possession order, resulting in another tenant at risk of homelessness.
A survey taken in May by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that around one million renting households are worried about being evicted following the lift of the eviction ban, and 1.7 million are concerned about paying rent. With the Universal Credit cut of £80 a month, rise in energy bills and national insurance increase, the number of distressed renters facing eviction are likely to increase over the upcoming winter months.
Labour MP for Manchester and shadow housing secretary Lucy Powell has called for the government to bring in emergency legislation to change the legal grounds for eviction, including the Section 21 notice. A spokesperson for the Government told the TBIJ that they would “bring forward further proposals in due course”, but no additional details have been given. Powell told The Meteor:
“The pandemic has shone a light on the importance of home, yet despite the government’s promise that no one would lose the roof over their head because of coronavirus, the opposite is true. Many of those facing eviction built arrears during the crisis through no fault of their own. Tax rises on working people, and the cut to universal credit will cause further waves of homelessness on this government’s watch.”
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Feature image: Alice Mollon/TBIJ
Amendment made on 18 October 2021: The headline and text of the article was changed to indicate that it was possession hearings that were being heard in court and reported on, and not eviction hearings.