During the pandemic, landlords were banned from enforcing evictions. This ban has been extended several times however from 1 October 2021, all notice periods have returned to the pre-pandemic lengths. But with the number of possession cases in the court system estimated at approximately 55,000-60,000 and expected to rise, is a dedicated Housing Court just more bureaucracy or finally some common sense?
A bit of background
The government first raised the prospect of a dedicated Housing Court over 3 years ago to deal with an already significant backlog of housing possession claims.
To date, possession claims are dealt with in the County Courts which must deal with all manner of civil cases – the vast majority of which are debt related. By late 2020, landlords and letting agents were having to endure waits of up to 43 weeks from claim to repossession – compared with 21 weeks in 2019.
Many experts agree that the size of the problem, although difficult to accurately quantify, is vast and a real cause for concern. What’s more, the view is that the situation could deteriorate dramatically next year, if as expected the abolition of “no-fault” Section 21 evictions is confirmed creating an even bigger need for a dedicated housing court solution.
Impact on landlords
Predictions are that many landlords are already quitting the PRS and as many as 600,000 properties are being removed from the already constrained market stock of properties.
Most landlords and letting agents agree that changes to the way in which PRS issues are dealt with are vital if further disinvestment, due to lack of confidence in the sector, is to be avoided.
Many believe that the only way forward is to have a dedicated housing court with faster case handling, lower costs and better outcomes for both landlords and tenants.
Alternative options to courts
However, some believe that non-litigation alternatives could be the answer to reducing the backlog of county court housing repossession cases. The Government has been keen to explore alternatives to having a housing court which include mediation and launched a £3 million funded pilot scheme in February this year.
The Rental Mediation Service is a free service for landlords and tenants alike and is designed to reduce the need for protagonists to appear in court in front of a judge.
The new review stage of the possession proceedings was introduced during the pandemic to help improve the speed of court hearings and can now provide an opportunity to go straight to the RMS – If both parties agree.
The tenant can even get legal advice from the Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme (HPCDS) and mediation (provided by a member of the Society of Mediators) usually takes place within 10 days of the review, by telephone.
If an agreement is reached it goes forward to a judge for approval, otherwise, failure to agree means that the case will take its normal course through to the County Court.
How successful is mediation?
Mediation has proven to be a successful process in many situations, for example, employment law, as it tends to be less confrontational as the parties never come face to face.
The scheme was initially designed to run for 6 months but, to date, there has been no indication of the success of the scheme or its continuance or otherwise. There is no doubt any opportunity to reduce bureaucracy should not be missed.
However; until the results of the pilot scheme are known, and outcomes are revealed, the jury is out as to whether the RMS can be a viable long-term alternative that will reduce the strain on the housing or court system, shrink the backlog and restore confidence in the private rented sector.
Very few would argue against avoiding litigation in a courtroom, but it may well be that a court is the only place for such complex and technical areas of housing law.
Given that housing possessions can be such complex affairs and there is a lot at stake – one party potentially could lose their home and the other a substantial loss of income on their investment property – there is little room for compromise and the only solution is a judicial decision.
The benefits of technology for housing courts
Technology is an interesting area that has been highlighted as having the potential to help the courts to speed up case handling with the digitisation of property information to provide easy access to data.
Digitisation of property information records could provide all parties involved in a dispute with smoother and quicker access to information and make it available to the court at the earliest possible stage.
Software applications are available to facilitate the capture of property data such as property inspection reports whilst property inventory software and property management software can provide accurate and readily available data for consideration by the court.
Housing Courts and Rental reform
The Renters Reform Bill was expected in 2021 but was not included in the Queen’s Speech and may well not see daylight until 2022.
The Government has stated it is committed to reform and one of the key areas included in the proposals is the improvement in the processing of repossession cases. In the meantime, Nightingale Courts and Online Courts are solutions that could be implemented quickly to help alleviate the situation.
As of 1 October 2021, all notice periods have returned to the pre-pandemic lengths but there are caveats to this. For notices served between 26 March 2020 and 30 September 2021, the notice period is different. Visit www.gov.uk for more up to date information.
Has the case for a dedicated Housing Court been made?
All these changes have created an enormous amount of bureaucracy and often confusion creating a huge surge in possession claims for the courts to hear. But whatever happens, landlords agree that action is needed now.
Over 90% landlords are in favour of a dedicated Housing Court where tenants’ rights to long term security are ensured whilst landlords’ rights to a fair return on their investment are respected.