An influential House of Lords constitutional committee has warned landlords that they face long waits for evictions to be processed once the evictions ban ends on 31st May.
The committee says the courts, weakened by years of spending cuts, and now ill prepared to deal with the huge pipeline of delayed eviction hearings.
These comments are within a Select Committee on the Constitution report published today that rounds on the government for the parlous state of the courts system in many areas of its operation including evictions.
“The stay on housing possession claims protected private and social renters from eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic, and was a significant step in providing security of tenure for most tenants in England and Wales during a difficult period,” the report says.
“However, it has contributed to the backlog in the courts, further undermining the timely delivery of justice and placing additional pressure on the justice system.
But it also provides solutions and calls on the government to consider how alternatives to litigation might be implemented to alleviate the volume of housing repossession cases awaiting disposal in the courts, which are estimated at 20,000.
Experts who informed the report including James Sandbach, director of policy and external affairs at LawWorks, who warned of a ‘massive backlog’ and said: “All the tenancy problems and disputes that might have developed during lockdown could lead to a tsunami of cases once the stay has lifted”.
The Lords on the committee said they welcomed the Government’s investment to increase court capacity to help reduce the backlog, and that the court service had worked hard to adapt court buildings after the first lockdown and Nightingale courtrooms have opened at impressive speed.
“However, despite these efforts, the backlog across jurisdictions remains unacceptably high,” the reports says.It also recommends that both for eviction and other cases, dispute resolution is employed ‘urgently’ to a greater degree than it is now as an alternative to legal proceedings.
In February, the government signed a £3 million contract to offer landlords and tenants a free, dedicated service staffed by seven clerks to engage with possession claims as they progress through court and facilitate settlement without a substantive hearing, where possible.
But this won’t clear the backlog of existing cases and is not mandatory.
“The Government has to actively encourage both landlords and their tenants to engage in meaningful and constructive mediation as early as possible,” says Sean Hooker of redress scheme the PRS (pictured).
“Whilst they have put some resources into a mediation trial, this does not happen until the parties are on the doorstep of the court and by then is often too little or too late.
“We have a proven track record in dispute resolution and have been promoted by the NRLA and mentioned in the Government’s own guidance, however most people are not aware that our service exists.
“The Government should clearly signpost those in need to recognised providers of alternative dispute resolution that can help stem the flow and pressure of cases set to land on an already under strain court service.
“This is a Dunkirk moment and will need every vessel to be sailing to help avoid a disaster.”