In the current climate of bedroom tax, welfare cuts, high unemployment levels and the global recession, more and more social landlords and local authorities are issuing possession proceedings against tenants for relatively low levels of arrears. In some cases Court action is taken where the arrears balance is just several hundred pounds.
Faced with possession papers and the threat of eviction, tenants are understandably extremely anxious and worried about losing their home. Their first port of call is to contact the landlord and make an agreement to pay off the arrears. However, the landlord’s request for payments will almost always be higher than the demand a Court would place on the tenant. The tenant, desperate to save their home, will agree without fully considering if they can realistically afford these payments.
As the first Court hearing draws nearer, the tenant becomes even more anxious about what will happen and going before the District Judge. In our experience the landlord will frequently tell them not to worry; that they don’t even have to go to Court if they don’t want to. The landlord will reassure the tenant and tell them they will let the Judge know the agreement they have reached and as long as the tenant makes the payments, it will all be ok.
However, what the landlord rarely tells the tenant is that they have just agreed to a Suspended Possession Order being made.
A Suspended Possession Order has the consequence that if breached, it allows the landlord to apply to Court straight away to obtain a Warrant of Eviction and before the tenant knows what has hit them, the Bailiffs are due to attend to change the locks. The much more preferable outcome is for the Court to adjourn the case on the basis that the tenant has to pay a regular weekly amount towards their arrears. This way, if there are anymore problems in the future, such as the tenant losing their job or having a change in benefits affecting their payments, the case will be referred back to the Judge and not straight to the Bailiff.
In our experience rent officers will frequently speak to tenants, reassure them and sympathise whilst encouraging them to agree to payments which are higher than the Court would demand. The tenant is frequently told they don’t need to come to Court and the landlord tells the Judge that a Suspended Possession Order has been agreed. In the absence of the tenant, the Court will approve the request made by the landlord and the tenant ends up one step closer to a Warrant of Eviction.
So the moral of the story is to seek legal advice as soon as possible. Many Courts will have duty advisers available at the hearing. Tenants just need to get to the hearing in good time and the duty solicitor will advise them. Tenants can still reach agreements with their landlord but should always seek legal advice to check that the terms they have agreed are reasonable.
By Elizabeth Lowe, solicitor in the housing law department
Stephensons is also happy to assist you with possession proceedings as soon as you receive the Court papers. The earlier you seek professional legal advice the better.