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Southampton Law School

Study led by Prof Lisa Whitehouse: Assessing the Court System’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Housing Possession Cases in England and Wales

Published: 26 January 2022

Dr Lisa Whitehouse, Principal Investigator. Dr Stamatina Liosi, Post-Doctoral Research Assistant (August - October 2021).

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape of housing possession in England and Wales was changed fundamentally. Measures introduced in response to the pandemic included the imposition of a stay on all possession hearings, a ban on bailiff-enforced evictions, extended notice periods for tenants and a moratorium on mortgage repossessions. In addition, all possession hearings were suspended between 27 March 2020 and 20 September 2020. Landlords and mortgagees were then able to bring claims for possession under new rules known as the ‘Overall Arrangements’ (OA). In addition, a new ‘Housing Possession Mediation Pilot Scheme’ (HPMPS), now known as the ‘Rental Mediation Service’ (RMS), intended to run for six months, was introduced on 1 February 2021.

This report offers a rapid assessment of the effectiveness of the court system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in housing possession cases in England and Wales and, from this, it arrives at recommendations designed to tackle some of the challenges faced by the civil justice system in the coming years. The measure of ‘effectiveness’ used here derives from the objectives set out by the architects of the court system’s response, the Master of the Rolls Working Group on Possession Proceedings. Those objectives were:

(a) reducing volume in the system by enabling earlier advice and increasing settlement,

(b) taking account, within limits that the law has imposed, of the effect of the pandemic on all parties, and

(c) maintaining confidence in the fairness of outcomes.

In addition to these COVID specific objectives, the overriding objective of the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR), aims to enable the courts to deal with cases justly and at proportionate cost. In assessing the extent to which these objectives have been met, this report supplements existing research with original first-hand accounts from those most closely associated with the possession process, namely, occupiers, debt advisers, landlords (private and social), legal practitioners (who represent landlords and mortgage lenders) and duty advisers, particularly legal practitioners who offer free legal advice to occupiers through the Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme.

The report’s findings suggest that, while we do not know how the pandemic will progress, what we do know is that any challenges that need to be faced will require a response different to that implemented during March 2020 - November 2021. While the underlying aims of that response were laudable, they ultimately proved largely ineffectual. Elements of it however are worthy of further investigation and revised implementation. These relate in particular to the objective of providing early and meaningful advice to both occupiers and landlords in the hope of arriving at pre-court settlement.

A copy of the report can be found here.

A copy of the Executive Summary can be found here.

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