In these rapidly changing and arguably unsettling times, the government has moved to create legislation to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
On 25 March, the Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent and came into effect the following day. The legislation is wide ranging but the provisions in Schedule 29 of the Act amend certain sections under the Housing Acts 1985,1988 and 1996, as well as the Rent Act 1977. These amendments extend the notice period for any notice served by the landlord seeking possession to three months, meaning that a landlord cannot commence possession proceedings until a three-month period has passed.
Notices served before the 26 March 2020 are still valid, however from the 27 March 2020 all possession proceedings going through the courts are suspended.
The legislation has been introduced as an emergency measure to give extra protection to tenants during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aims of the legislation
The legislation aims to regulate possession notices for most types of residential tenancies.
The main changes in the Act relate to extending the period of notice given by landlords to three months, with some limited exceptions. This applies from 26 March 2020 and is in place until 30 September 2020.
In addition, the secretary of state for England and the Welsh minister will have power to extend this period for up to six months.
Q. Where will the new provisions apply?
A. The Act will apply to all notices to quit and notices seeking possession. This does not just relate to those notices which have arisen due to the coronavirus. Although the Act will not affect any ongoing possession proceedings or notices issued prior to the Act, all proceedings will be adjourned as, from 27 March, housing possession cases going through the courts are being suspended. This is likely to last until June.
On 26 March 2020 it was announced that the master of rolls and Lord Chancellor had agreed to suspend all ongoing housing possession actions for 90 days, with no exclusions. The next day, Practice Direction 51Z was issued, which states that, amongst other matters, all proceedings for housing possession brought under CPR Part 55 and all proceedings seeking to enforce an order for possession by a warrant or writ of possession are stayed for a period of 90 days, from 27 March 2020.
New forms of notice and what it means for landlords and tenants
Any notice served from the 26 March in connection with a protected and statutory tenancy, a secure tenancy, an assured tenancy (including assured shorthold), a flexible tenancy, a demoted tenancy or introductory tenancy must have a notice period of three months. This applies to all grounds for possession including anti-social behaviour.
There are new updated prescribed forms for section 8 and section 21.
Form 6A: For a no-fault possession notice on an Assured Shorthold Tenancy
Form 3: Notice seeking possession of a property let on an assured or an assured agricultural occupancy
It is important for tenants to know that a landlord cannot evict a tenant without a court order. Landlords therefore cannot ask their tenants to leave without one and that being served with a notice does not mean that they have to leave once the three months has expired; rather, it means that landlords cannot apply to the court for possession until the three months has passed.
The government is advising landlords and tenants to have open and honest conversations about rent payments which are still due. These conversations could include the financial hardships being faced by tenants, reasonable rent payments and repayments schedules.
The new rules on notices will not apply to:
1. Licences or contractual tenancies
2. Tenancies granted in the course of employment
In addition, helpful government guidance providing advice to landlords and tenants as well as on eviction notices was published a few days after the Act came into effect. These documents helpfully explain the new requirements.
The length of the coronavirus pandemic is unknown and with countries around the world enacting virtual lockdowns to prevent the spread of the disease and frantically working towards creating home test kits and an eventual cure, there are many factors which arguably still need to be ironed out. This will no doubt take time.
While the emergency legislation attempts to ease the immediate pressure on tenants and protect them from losing their homes due to coronavirus, the legislation doesn’t provide for a rent holiday as tenants are still required to pay rent.
Q. What does the Act mean for renters?
A. The Act provides for a pause in possession actions, but it does not stop the process indefinitely and tenants are still required to pay rent. It allows for some limited protection but there is an expectation consistent with the legislation that there should be communications early on if renters are experiencing difficulties in paying rent.
Additionally, the guidance mentioned above calls for landlords and tenants to reach an agreement where financial hardships result in difficulties paying rent and a sensible way forward. This could include deciding upon a reduced rent payment for an agreed period of time and/or a repayment schedule should full rent not be able to be paid while the pandemic is still having an effect.
Q. What does the Act mean for legal advisors?
A. The legislation will mean that legal advisors are required to provide guidance to colleagues during the period of lockdown, ensure that relevant pre- action protocols and government guidance are adhered to, review notices and procedures where appropriate and consider forward planning for the provision of advice. This could include how to deal with rent arrears and repairs that could not be made once the government restrictions are lifted.
Rosemary Keczkes, chair of the Law Society housing law committee