All housing possession proceedings have been suspended for 90 days after solicitors collected hard data showing lack of a consistent approach among county courts dealing with cases during the coronavirus crisis. The suspension has been welcomed by housing solicitors but the government is being urged to provide cash-strapped legal aid providers - whose cashflows will take an immediate hit - with emergency support.
The decision to suspend was made by the master of the rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, with lord chancellor Robert Buckland’s agreement.
Guidance published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government states that neither cases currently in the system nor any about to go in the system can progress to the stage where someone could be evicted. The suspension will initially last for 90 days but can be extended. The ministry says the measure will protect all private and social renters, and those with mortgages and licences covered by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
Tenants are still liable for rent and should pay this as usual. They should speak to their landlord if they think they may struggle to pay the rent. The ministry is working with the master of the rolls to strengthen pre-action protocol requirements and extend this to the private rented sector.
The government had announced a halt to new possession proceedings through court applications last week. However, the approach by county courts appeared to be disjointed, with some courts adjourning cases for three months, and others adjourning only for a few days or weeks.
Despite government guidance to avoid crowded places, duty solicitors have had to risk their own health to advise clients in court.
Last week the Gazette went to Croydon County Court where solicitor Jeinsen Lam, of South West London Law Centres, was on duty.
Lam said today: 'This is fantastic news for tenants and borrowers that brings much-needed clarity to those worried about eviction during the coronavirus pandemic. It remains to be seen, however, how or indeed whether the government intends to deal with rent arrears that will have accrued as a result of the coronavirus crisis and what additional protection from eviction tenants will have after the 90-day period ends.'
The suspension could have a significant impact on legal aid providers' income.
The Law Centres Network welcomed the suspension but said the loss of income from duty desk work, despite being poorly remunerated, will hit law centres' cashflow immediately.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, the network's head of policy, said: 'We are in frequent contact with the Legal Aid Agency and Ministry of Justice about this, and are pressing them for emergency support to ensure that law centres and other legal aid providers cannot just survive this crisis but remain sustainable beyond it.
'While relaxing legal aid procedures would help operationally, it would have limited financial effect as we expect the volume of new cases to reduce for the coming months. Even after emergency conditions are relaxed, we expect legal aid income to take some months to recover. Therefore, what law centres would need alongside this are grants-in-aid in order to preserve their core capacity and retain them as legal aid providers.'
*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.