Government left Londoners powerless to fight eviction from homes during coronavirus pandemic


For many Londoners who are hard up the coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic.

Reduced wages, job losses and declines in business have all hit the pockets of those on the breadline.

This was seen so clearly in the increased demand for food banks which rocketed in 2020.

But nowhere were the effects felt more than in the corridors and courtrooms of the county courts of London.

It was here that judges handed out possession orders to evict people from their homes because they couldn’t pay the rent and it was here that many people’s worst nightmares started.

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Life-changing decisions that often leave people homeless are made on average in 10 minutes in London courts
Life-changing decisions that often leave people homeless are made on average in 10 minutes in London courts

At the start of the pandemic, the government said no one should lose their home as a result of coronavirus, announcing a “freeze” on eviction proceedings due to the pandemic, which lasted until September 2020.

But many said the policy was like putting put a band-aid on a gunshot wound, failing to tackle the underlying factors of unaffordable housing and poverty.

The problem is, judges are virtually powerless to prevent some of the most vulnerable in British society from losing their homes. The Housing Act 1988 lays out “mandatory grounds” for eviction, meaning as long as procedural rules are followed, such as giving the right amount of notice, a tenant has no legal argument against eviction.

In an unprecedented analysis of 550 courts across England and Wales, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism sent a team of reporters to 30 courts nationwide to report on how the pandemic has affected housing

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Over the course of two months, they gathered London-wide data covering 251 cases across seven major London courts.

They found that 54 per cent of cases logged in London were on legal grounds, which meant a possession order was mandatory, with the judge having no leeway to take into account the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives.

In 67 per cent of London hearings, neither the tenant nor their lawyer was in attendance – so no one was there to argue against the eviction. Tenants struggle with obtaining legal representation, often having only a couple of minutes before their hearing to speak to duty advisors, who provide free legal advice, and then mount a defence.

‘Over half of London possession court hearings result in eviction’

Life-changing decisions that often leave people homeless are made on average in 10 minutes in London courts, with over half of London possession court hearings resulting in eviction. In a quarter of all London cases, COVID-19 has been explicitly mentioned as a relevant factor with regards to the tenant’s situation.

Judges repeatedly explained that personal misfortunes made no difference to the outcome of the case.

Around 12 per cent of cases in London courts where the legal basis of the case was logged, involved the controversial Section 21 “no-fault” notice of the Housing Act, which the Conservative party promised to scrap in their 2019 manifesto to create a “fairer rental market”.

A Section 21 notice means that the landlord does not need to give a specific reason for wanting possession of their property. Therefore, tenants cannot challenge a valid Section 21 notice.

Knowing that their fate is likely sealed, many will leave their homes before their case reaches court, so the true number of these cases will be much greater than the figures from the court suggested.

The amount of rent arrears owed by tenants has also skyrocketed since the onset of the pandemic, with tenants simply unable to afford their rent.

The vast majority of cases observed were based on rent arrears, under a Section 8 order of the Housing Act 1988, used when a tenant breaks the terms of the rental agreement. A Section 8 order acts as a mandatory ground for repossession if the landlord can prove that the tenant has arrears of at least two months.

The average amount of rent arrears owed in London was £25,869. The highest amount witnessed in London was £291,922 owed to a London borough council. The Bureau found some people facing eviction for as little as £614.40. In around 10 per cent of cases in London courts, the arrears were £3,000 or less, equivalent to three months of the average UK rent.

Disabled man’s son, 15, had to deal with legal proceedings

There’s a human face behind each case number, such as the story of the man at Croydon County Court, who suffered from severe mobility issues and visual impairment to the extent that he had to be helped into the court by the duty solicitor and court usher.

His 15-year-old son had been dealing with the legal proceedings related to his case. The man had registered as homeless, but the local council had been unable to find him appropriate disability-accessible accommodation.

Or the story of the single mother at Willesden County Court, confined with three children to a two-bedroom apartment. Her oldest child was recently diagnosed with autism. Over lockdown, she suffered from depression and had recently witnessed the breakdown of her marriage, as well as the death of her mother. The council had been struggling to find her suitable accommodation, and she was a priority need for rehousing. In just over one in 10 of all London cases, the tenants mentioned having children.

The pandemic has been a painful reminder that anyone’s right to a safe and secure home can be under threat
The pandemic has been a painful reminder that anyone’s right to a safe and secure home can be under threat

Case after case revealed the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable: mental health issues suffered by tenants, many struggling to pay their rent on benefits, most desperately in need of work, and those with young children at risk of losing their homes. As we face the winter, and the Universal Credit uplift and furlough schemes are removed, there will be fewer and fewer protections in place to prevent evictions from spiralling out of control.

While most cases involved private landlords (59 per cent), around 35 per cent involved social landlords such as housing associations and local councils. Many local councils have found themselves under pressure, playing a dual role of landlord and first point of call for those made homeless.

Several councils called for the eviction ban to be extended, but the Bureau also witnessed some councils that were quick to take tenants to court, sometimes for as little as £600 in rent owed. Citizens Advice estimate that half a million people could be in rent arrears, and one in four of them have been threatened with eviction.

The pandemic has been a painful reminder that anyone’s right to a safe and secure home can be under threat. What is certain is the need for urgent tenancy reforms that give tenants a chance to make their case for staying put.

What is needed is urgent financial support to help tenants pay off arrears built since lockdown measures started last March. More and more tenants balance on the ‘cliff edge’ of eviction, with the potential for a homeless crisis just around the corner.





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