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With landlord repossession reaching 5,409 during the fourth quarter of 2022 (The Guardian), almost doubling from the same period in 2021, it seems that tenancy disputes continue to be on the rise.

However, many tenants cannot afford to pay for legal advice and have looked to legal aid schemes, including the former Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes (HPCDS), to seek support in such matters during the past few years.

However, a new Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service (HLPAS) has since been introduced and this offers a wider range of topics that qualify for tenant advice.

This article is a guide to HLPAS, also comparing it to HPCDS. It will then highlight the possible implications for property professionals when managing tenant-landlord disputes, as well as detailing the importance of property condition reports and similar documentation.

Introduction to the Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service (HLPAS)

On the 2nd October 2023, the Government issued an updated How to rent guide for England and Wales. Acting as a checklist for renting a house or apartment, which landlords or letting agents must issue to new tenants, this refreshed version includes details of the newly formed Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service (HLPAS). Beginning on the 1st August 2023, it replaced the now redundant Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes (HPCDS), which we’ll look at below.

HLPAS is a way for tenants to obtain legal advice following a landlord dispute. It aims to support tenants in situations where they could have to leave their rented home, representing a lifeline for many given the potential practical and emotional implications.

To start the legal aid process through HLPAS, those renting a property must be able to show written evidence that they’re facing possession proceedings and could lose their accommodation.

According to the NRLA (the National Residential Landlords Association) website, the Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service can give legal advice in several areas. These include possession claims, rent arrears, debt concerns, disrepair and other problems with housing conditions, as well as issues with welfare benefits payments. Funded by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), it is open to all tenants without being means tested.

Comparison between HLPAS and the former Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes (HPCDS)

The Legal Aid Agency has offered guidance for HLPAS service providers regarding the two stages of legal support that are now available to tenants renting in England and Wales. These provide assistance before and/or during a court possession hearing.

Earlier Legal Support

The HLPAS differs from the earlier version because the HPCDS would only become accessible to tenants on the day of a hearing itself. This created more stress in the run up to this important event, as early-stage legal advice was not offered until they had arrived. Therefore, the provision of early legal advice under HLPAS can be seen as a win for tenants, who will now have improved access to legal aid as regards their housing from an earlier date.

In Court Duty Scheme

Similarities with the now replaced HPCDS include the HLPAS’ In Court Duty Scheme. This offers emergency advice and legal representation (without financial costs) to anyone facing a possession hearing. These two free services will support tenants by offering accurate and relevant information throughout the process and can be accessed either individually or together to help tenants respond to landlord disputes.

An Extended Range of Legal Advice

Another key development concerns the widened scope of the HLPAS. The replaced HPCDS now qualifies tenants for free legal advice where tenancy disputes concern debt and welfare benefit payments. It will reach those living in a property who are struggling with paying their rent by directing them to debt support services. This crucial change has the potential to intervene and prevent those with arrears before the landlord dispute reaches the court hearing date.

HLPAS’ Time Limitations

Whilst the HLPAS reforms will support tenants facing landlord disputes at an earlier point in legal proceedings, helping them to prepare for their hearing before the date itself, there is a cut-off point for this legal support. HLPAS will only be available to them beforehand and during the first full hearing. This means that they won’t receive the same assistance should a second or third hearing be necessary. At this point the tenant will have to seek paid services from a solicitor or be eligible for more legal aid.

Implications for property professionals for managing tenant disputes

The developments surrounding the introduction of the HLPAS mean that property professionals such as letting agents, inventory clerks and property managers need to be even more informed when it comes to creating inventories and proactively updating their industry knowledge. This prevents them from incorrectly advising their landlord clients, who may now face a greater challenge to repossess their property back from tenants.

Property professionals also need to ensure that they or the landlord issue the revised How to Rent guide before the start of every new tenancy in England and Wales (if part of their service options and delivery). This sets out to tenants their responsibilities in terms of the upkeep needed when living in their new property.

Failure to do this could find landlords without a case in court possession hearings. It could also lead to a damaged reputation, if not legal action, for the property professional should the landlord feel they’ve been misadvised.

Also, the more informed the tenant is, the less likely that misunderstandings and the HLPAS for tenancy disputes will be needed. After all, the HLPAS is going to become crucial when tenant-landlord disputes develop over the repair issues and condition of a property.

The importance of property condition reports and documentation

Guidance is Golden

Recording the physical condition of a rental property in between tenancies, property condition reports provide a benchmark of how tenants should maintain their home. When completed accurately and in sufficient detail, they can encourage the reporting of repairs and a good level of property cleanliness from tenants so the cost of any damage is not taken from their deposit at the end of the tenancy. They limit the chances of tenancy disputes escalating, avoiding expense on behalf of the landlord.

Evidence of Neglect and Damage

The descriptions of a property’s condition (including any furnishings) in a property condition report and independent inventory report, can help landlords prove that the tenant has not been looking after the property as they should have been. This can constitute a breach in their tenancy agreement. It also helps to gauge the change in condition regarding long-term tenancies of several years or where a house/apartment is classed as a shared property.

Section 8 Notices

Such documentation provides clarity and could be used to prove that a Section 8 notice is warranted. This is a “formal legal notice that informs a tenant who has breached their tenancy agreement that, should they fail to remedy the breach, their landlord is eligible to ask the court to evict them”. Their Section 8 notice will therefore have a greater chance of success when it reaches the court hearing stage should they be able to prove that the condition has not been responsibly preserved beyond normal wear and tear.

Condition reports are crucial for landlords

Following the introduction of the HLPAS, now more than ever, landlords should appreciate the fact that condition reports are absolutely vital moving forward and can act as a reference point in tenant and landlord disputes.

Inventory Base’s professional property reporting software can create branded paperless reports or import existing documents to your account, ensuring you can capture and record any and all details through the course of a tenancy.

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