The dramatic impact of the government’s suspension of housing possession proceedings has been revealed today as solicitors prepare for a 'tsunami' of evictions when the ban ends this month.
The government announced in March that it was suspending all housing possession proceedings to protect private and social renters, and those with mortgages and licences covered by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, during the pandemic.
Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice covering April to June show that, compared with the same quarter last year, mortgage possession claims, orders and warrants fell by 97%, 96% and almost 100% respectively. No repossessions by county court bailiffs were recorded. Landlord possession claims, orders and warrants fell by 89%, 97% and 98% respectively. Again, no repossessions by county court bailiffs were recorded.
A judicial-led working group set up by the master of the rolls is working on preparations for when hearings resume on 24 August.
Shelter, a homelessness charity, estimates that at least 227,000 private renters have fallen into arrears since the start of the pandemic and risk being evicted when the courts resume hearing cases.
The Legal Aid Agency has been tendering for housing possession court duty work in Birkenhead, Bodmin and Truro, Boston and Lincoln, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Kings Lynn and Great Yarmouth, Southampton and Telford. The agency says it expects that most courts will hold face-to-face and remote hearings. However, practitioners will not receive additional travel payments.
The Legal Education Foundation, a grant-giving charity, has asked the lord chancellor to ensure lawyers’ travel expenses are funded.
Chief executive Matthew Smerdon is a member of the Civil Justice Council and the foundation is represented on the working group. He says in his letter that housing charities predict a 'tsunami' of evictions when hearings resume.
‘The [duty scheme] is recognised as giving a lifeline to people on the brink of eviction, by ensuring expert legal advice is available when they attend court for possession hearings. The role of these duty desks will be more important than ever after 24 August.’
The foundation thinks the failure to fund reasonable travel costs as part of the latest tender will drive providers to deliver the duty scheme remotely.
Smerdon says: ‘This will be a particular problem in advice deserts, where there are no locally based housing lawyers. The best available evidence shows that remote advice provision is a poor substitute for face-to-face help at court, and will be particularly unsuitable for vulnerable people, many more of whom will end up homeless, as a result.’
When the government consulted on changes to the duty scheme last year, it estimated that the cost of paying travel disbursements for the entire scheme annually would be between £300,000 and £600,000. ‘This sum is marginal when compared with immediate knock-on costs if individuals and families lose their homes for want of receiving effective advice and representation at court,’ Smerdon says.