Coronavirus in Portsmouth: Tenants thrown out of their homes in pandemic as landlords warn '500' more evictions to come

FAMILIES struggling in the pandemic are being kicked out of their homes in ‘very sad’ cases, an investigation by The News can reveal.

By Ben Fishwick
Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 12:05 am

As part of an unprecedented probe with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The News attended around 30 court hearings where landlords were taking tenants to court to seek repossession.

Across the hearings 11 tenants were ordered to hand back their keys – leading to eviction and possible homelessness.

Among those ordered to leave was a tenant who fell behind on rent in lockdown, a couple with four children who failed to pay for 16 months, an ‘extreme’ unruly resident – and a woman whose brother wanted her out of the family home.

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Housing solicitor Tina Smith who is warning of a 'tsunami' in possession claims, with paralegal Thomas Eacott, both of Swain & Co, outside Havant Justice Centre. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Landlords in Portsmouth say there are 500 possession cases yet to enter the courts – bolstering fears of a ‘tsunami’ of cases around the corner that could lead to homelessness.

Many of the cases involved the controversial section 21 notice – where landlords can order tenants out of their homes without giving a reason.

One Gosport mum-of-three who went through court told The News: ‘I contemplated suicide because I thought that would be easier and I thought my kids deserved better.’

The national investigation with the Bureau covered 550 hearings across England and Wales.

In 85 per cent of cases brought on mandatory grounds for eviction, judges were unable to use any discretion taking into account a tenant’s circumstances and had to grant repossession.

From observing cases at Havant Justice Centre our investigation reveals:

:: A judge agreed to a possession order within 60 seconds of a hearing starting.

:: A landlord gave notice to a tenant on April 28 last year – a month into lockdown and while a six-month ban on evictions was in force.

:: More than a third of the 31 claims saw an outright possession order made – paving the way to eviction.

:: In the worst arrears case a tenant owed £26,000 in rent, but in another case a landlord brought a claim over £1,438.

:: Covid was raised as a relevant factor in just less than a third of the cases.

:: Nuisance neighbours causing anti-social behaviour were still being brought to court by housing associations and councils.

:: Just 12 tenants turned up to court despite all risking losing their homes - and only seven asked for free legal advice.

Responding to our findings, Portsmouth South Labour MP Stephen Morgan said: ‘This is deeply concerning and it may only just be the tip of the iceberg.

‘The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on local residents’ incomes, so it cannot be right that some of the most vulnerable in our society can be forced from their homes without any consideration for why they may be struggling to make ends meet.

‘Government should be protecting residents and landlords from dodgy legal loopholes like this.

‘Instead, they continue to plough on with the Universal Credit cut next month and despite the bluster and rhetoric, we’ve seen nothing on government promises to scrap section 21.

‘I will be following up with the city council to ensure those in social housing are not being treated in this manner, and will be lobbying central government to address this problem as quickly as possible.’

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In the opening salvo of the pandemic last year, the government brought in protective measures including banning evictions for six months, and bailiffs were ordered to stop work for more than a year.

When courts resumed hearing possession claims the justice system feared a wave of evictions - but this has failed to materialise.

Yet judges indicated they had no ‘real discretion’ – meaning Covid-related effects could not be taken into account.

One housing solicitor told The News she fears a ‘tsunami’ of evictions is soon expected following the trickle of cases that did go ahead this summer.

More landlords and tenants could end up in court at emotionally-charged hearings as October 1 marks a further relaxation of renters’ protections, with landlords allowed to give as little as four weeks’ notice to quit over arrears.

Tina Smith, from Swain & Co in Havant, offers free legal advice to tenants under the legal aid-funded scheme - but few people take up the offer.

She said: ‘We keep hearing the tsunami is coming, we were expecting it in March, then another time.

‘At the moment the tsunami hasn't come. We were told it's around the corner.

‘If we've got a limited number of people who can help these defendants I do worry what on earth is going to happen.

‘We're here and hopefully we can help as many people as we can and we do want to help people.

‘It's a worry that it won't be too much longer before it's going to be chock-a-block with people wanting to know what they can do and what help they can get.

‘At the moment the court lists are quite sedate.

‘We've been warned that the lists are going to go back (to before) – that there's going to be a couple of courts a couple of times a week. When that's going to happen I don't know.

‘It's almost waiting for when it's going to kick off.’

Landlords can ask for possession claims evicting their tenants on a number of grounds, including rent arrears and anti-social behaviour.

Many of these are mandatory, meaning a judge hearing the case has no discretion as long as the correct notice period was given and arrears were proven.

In one case a judge said within 60 seconds of a hearing starting he was satisfied he could make a possession order on mandatory grounds.

The hearing, involving a tenant whose arrears started at the end of the first lockdown, lasted for 12 minutes in total. He had been given a no-fault eviction notice to quit the property in May.

At Havant Justice Centre, judge Mark Loveday heard the tenant had arrears of £5,650 but had paid £400, and wanted to pay off the rest.

The tenant paid regularly, albeit late, prior to the pandemic. He had at one point contracted Covid-19 and was on Universal Credit, the court heard.

Making the possession order, judge Loveday said: ‘It's very sad but I don't have any real discretion.’

The landlord, represented by a barrister, was granted a possession order with the tenant ordered out in 14 days, with £5,650 to pay plus a £19.56 daily charge for staying in the property after the notice period.

Judge Loveday also ordered the tenant, who did not attend, to pay £1,931 costs.

In another case, a judge said there was ‘no suitable alternative’ to making a possession order and added ‘consequently, regrettably, the only outcome possible it seems, to me, is a possession order’.

The 10-minute case involved a Portsmouth City Council tenant in Privett House, Cumberland Street, Portsea, who owed around £3,800 in rent.

She did not attend the hearing and had no legal representation, and had not communicated with the council. She made a payment nearing £400 in September.

Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson said court action is looked at ‘case by case’.

A government statement said: ‘Our £352bn support package has helped renters throughout the pandemic and prevented a build-up of rent arrears. We also took unprecedented action to help keep people in their homes by extending notice periods and pausing evictions at the height of the pandemic.

‘As the economy reopens it is right that these measures are now being lifted and we are delivering a fairer and more effective private rental sector that works for both landlords and tenants.

‘We will bring forward further proposals in due course, including the abolition of section 21 “no fault” evictions and further support for landlords where repossession is necessary.’

For help, call Swain & Co on (023) 9248 3322 or 033 33582581 for legal representation funded by the Legal Aid Agency under the Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme. This is only for defendants due to appear in possession court.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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