How some Islington tenants are losing their homes in a matter of minutes
Emma Bartholomew, Maeve McClenaghan and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- Credit: Alice Mollon
An investigation has found that people in dire financial straits are losing their homes in cases which last a matter of minutes, because the legal system has failed to account for Covid's catastrophic effect - despite the government stating at the start of the pandemic that no one should lose their home as a result of coronavirus.
The project was carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, supported by the Gazette and other titles around the country.
Together we covered 555 possession court hearings involving rented properties throughout the summer, at 30 courts across England and Wales - including Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court in Gee Street, where cases in Islington are heard.
We can reveal that 85 per cent of those cases left judges with no scope to take a tenant’s circumstances into account – despite Covid-19 being explicitly mentioned in a third of all hearings where a possession order was granted.
This is despite MPs last year on the Housing, Communities and Local Government committee recommending changes in the law for judges to have discretion deciding each individual case - a recommendation the government chose to ignore.
Islington Council too, has promised too to "do everything they can" to help tenants who have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of jobs and lost earnings, and who are struggling to pay rent.
Yet the Gazette has learned of at least one case where a tenant whose earnings reduced because of Covid, would have been evicted for rent arrears, had Islington Law Centre not stepped in.
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The market trader had been suffering from depression and anxiety, and his income reduced substantially after footfall dropped during the lockdown leading him to rack up rent arrears of £7,000, according to Fiona Mogre, a solicitor at the community law centre in Devonia Road, St Peter's.
Ms Mogre said: "Islington Council was seeking an outright possession order and my colleague Serdar Celebi, who was the duty solicitor that day, convinced the judge to make a suspended possession order, meaning that the client was allowed to remain in his home."
The man was lucky, because of a technicality which meant his eviction notice was being sought on discretionary grounds rather than mandatory.
Had the grounds been mandatory, the judge would have had no option but to evict him.
Islington Council has brought 16 eviction cases to court since the bailiff eviction ban ended on May 31, but said no one had yet been evicted – although one tenant "decided to leave".
A council spokesperson said it takes "every possible action to avoid eviction", including "talking to tenants who cannot afford their rent and working out how we can help them stay in their home".
They added: "Beginning an eviction case is always an absolute last resort, and we will encourage any household with an eviction notice to seek independent legal advice.”
The way housing law works in England and Wales, if a private landlord wants to reclaim their property from a tenant, they must serve them with either a Section 21 notice – in which they do not have to give any specific reasons – or a Section 8 notice, in which they name the legal grounds they are relying on.
If the tenant refuses to leave the property after the notice has been given, the landlord can bring the case to court.
Grounds 9-17 of the Housing Act 1988 are discretionary, meaning the judge can weigh up the information in front of them and make their own minds up as to what to do. They include neglecting or damaging the property and nuisance behaviour.
But grounds 1-8 are mandatory, meaning that as long as the right notice is given and paperwork filed, then the judge will almost certainly grant possession to the landlords.
Ground 8 states a court must order possession if two months' rent remains unpaid – and accounted for 63pc of the hearings we attended.
Campaigners have been warning the pandemic would lead to a “cliff edge” of evictions – and yet nothing has been done to address the fact that a judge is required to grant a possession order – paving the way for eviction – against any tenant who falls two months behind on their rent.
People we saw who were handed an eviction order on these grounds included a pregnant woman whose work had dried up because of Covid-19, a man who had suffered a mental breakdown and whose wife was hospitalised with Covid-19, and a woman who had become depressed after quitting her job to start another that never materialised because of Covid-19.
Some possession orders we witnessed were granted in under a minute.
Ms Mogre finds the law in relation to mandatory grounds "draconian".
"It infuriates me and it frustrates me," she said.
"It is simply unfair that people, especially now, are facing these proceedings and are unable to voice their circumstances and change the outcome.
"If ground 8 is made out the judge has no choice but to grant a possession order, and what that means is that the tenant is voiceless, and that their circumstances no matter how dire, do not get to be considered."
The "tsunami" of evictions that campaigners have warned about as a result of the pandemic hasn't yet materialised – but Ms Mogre thinks it will.
Furlough ends at the end of this month, while the two-month notice period landlords had to provide tenants to leave returns on October 1.
"We are seeing an increase in cases being listed by social landlords, and I've no reason to think that trend won't increase," she said.
"We have also seen private tenants that ordinarily we wouldn't have seen in court at all, with very high arrears impacted by the pandemic, for example people running their own businesses, whose income decreased to the extent they couldn't keep up with rent payments or in some cases couldn't pay any rent at all.
"People are being made homeless at a time when they don't necessarily have the capital funds to be able to put a deposit down elsewhere, and start again."
One case she is dealing with at present involves a single mother-of-two from Hackney with £6,000 in rent arrears, whose childcare work dried up during the lockdown. Her housing association was relying on ground 8.
"When I saw her down at court two months ago the housing association's representative was adamant he was going to go into court and seek an outright possession order," she said.
"However her home is in disrepair and I was able to take that up as a counterclaim, and prevent a possession order being made.
"If it weren't for my intervention as duty solicitor the disrepair and counterclaim may not have come out in court and in the absence of that a possession order would have been made."
Section 21 “no fault” evictions were seen in 20pc of the cases we witnessed, where landlords do not need to give a specific reason for repossession.
Although the Conservative party pledged to abolish “no fault” evictions in its 2019 manifesto, no changes have yet been made – although a government spokesperson said it is due to appear in the Renters’ Reform Bill.
They added: “Our £352 billion 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."