‘Chaotic, disjointed and confused’ is how one housing lawyer has described the situation at county courts following varied responses to possession listings and concerns about a move towards remote hearings.
Last week the government announced a halt to new possession proceedings through court applications. The Housing Law Practitioners Association wrote to the designated circuit judge for the London civil courts calling for an automatic moratorium on all ongoing residential possession and eviction cases. The association said it received a swift response to the effect that block-list hearings would be suspended. Law centres wrote to their courts asking for possession cases to be adjourned and relisted for a later date.
However, county courts appear to be making different decisions. For instance, the Gazette was told that possession hearings in Exeter, Cumbria and Merseyside have been adjourned for three months. However, cases in Coventry only adjourned until 3 April. Some duty solicitors in London are reportedly unsure about what is happening with possession lists at their courts this week.
On Sunday the judiciary published civil court guidance which stated that remote hearings should be used where possible in the county court.
Angus King, a solicitor at Southwark Law Centre, said there was an indication that some courts want to hear possession cases by phone. ‘This might work with represented clients when the hearings are between lawyers but not with the duty advice service. The whole point is that before the day of the hearing we have never met the client before,’ he said.
‘I cannot see how it can work practically. How does the court contact the client? Phone numbers on housing files are often out of date. How does the client contact us? And how do we represent clients properly when we can’t see any paperwork and the client is trying to give us instructions over the phone?’
Meanwhile the government is expected to introduce emergency legislation on possession claims imminently. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government says landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three-month period.
Housing solicitor Giles Peaker, who has seen a draft of the bill, has already expressed concerns about some of the content. He says on his Nearly Legal blog: ‘It appears that notices issued before the commencement date will remain valid as a basis for possession proceedings. So a swath of coronavirus-related possession claims will not be caught, where notices will have already been served. As it will not be in effect until Friday at the earliest, and apparently not even made retrospective to the date of government’s announcement, that is a further week of valid notices under the old timescales.’
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.