by Misha Nayak-Oliver

Landlord evictions of residential tenants were paused during the COVID-19 outbreak. But the UK Government has decided to lift this temporary ban. From 24 August court possession proceedings are to resume, meaning landlords can get a court order and evict tenants.

Has the UK Government forgotten that the right to housing is essential for everyone to enjoy their right to an adequate standard of living as included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legally binding treaty the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The right to adequate housing is not the same as the right to property or land, it means having a safe and secure place to live in peace and dignity.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has stressed that “Losing your home during this pandemic could mean losing your life”.

What will happen after 23 August?

All court action for evictions of certain residential tenants has been put on hold until 23 August; landlords can’t get a court order until after that date.

Court action for eviction after that date is likely to take longer than usual. There could be a backlog of around 62,000 landlord possession claims to be processed across England and Wales, according to David Cox, ARLA Propertymark.

Notwithstanding delays to evictions, over 450,000 parents who rent in the private sector fear ‘Covid-homelessness’. This figure equates to one in five private renting parents.

When making its decision to lift the eviction ban, the UK Government has to comply with international human rights law. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has drawn the UK Government’s attention  to the fact that the UK has voluntarily agreed to ensure an adequate standard of housing for everyone (Article 11 ICESCR). In 2016, this Committee urged the UK to take immediate measures to reduce the exceptionally high levels of homelessness, particularly in England.

The UK Government’s decision to lift the eviction ban will increase homelessness.

The problem is “[t]he ban hasn’t stopped people who’ve lost their jobs during this pandemic from racking up rent arrears” says Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter.

According to Shelter, 429,000 (15%) of “private renting parents are cutting back on food to help pay their rent since lockdown”. 550,000 (20%) are “taking on debt (such as overdrafts, credit cards, payday loans or borrowing money from the bank / family & friends) to help pay their rent since lockdown”.

In line with UN advice on poverty and the ICESCR, and according to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UK Government should guarantee support to all those living in (or at risk of) poverty. However, the UK Government chose to make significant reforms to the social security system and cut local authority funding thereby restricting welfare services. As a consequence, there will be limited social protection for residential tenants affected when the eviction ban is lifted. All of this sheds light on the UK Government’s violations of Article 9 and Article 11 ICESCR.

The current ban on evictions

There are different types of eviction notices which landlords have to get and serve on a tenant in order to seek possession. Some notice processes were modified by the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Section 81 and Schedule 29 of the Coronavirus Act 2020). This law came into force in the UK on 25 March 2020.

Modified eviction notice processes include the Section 8 process (for Assured and Assured Shorthold Tenancies) and notices under Section 83 of the Housing Act 1985 (for seeking possession of property let under a secure tenancy). 

The Section 21 process (for Assured Shorthold Tenancies) was also modified. Most private renters have this type of tenancy. Section 21 enables private landlords to repossess their properties from assured shorthold tenants. The landlord does not need to give a reason. This is why a section 21 is sometimes called a ‘no fault’ notice. When the notice period ends the landlord can apply to court for a possession order. There are specific rules which set out the requirements for a valid section 21 notice.

Notably, the Conservative Party Manifesto (December 2019) promised to “abolish ‘no fault’ evictions” and protect tenants “from revenge evictions and rogue landlords”. The UK Government led by the Conservative Party has not yet fulfilled this manifesto commitment.

In 2016, following a review of the UK State’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urged the UK to regulate the private rental market, including by protecting security of tenure. The UK Government is failing to do this, and is therefore violating its international legal duties under Article 2 and Article 11 ICESCR.

Why evictions shouldn’t happen during a pandemic

How can evicted tenants help stop infections or spreading COVID-19? The UK Government is going to make it impossible for people to follow not only domestic, but also international health guidance; avoiding crowded places, social distancing, hand washing, self-quarantine, or isolation.

Inadequate and deficient housing and living conditions are invariably associated with higher mortality rates.

With that in mind, the UK Government’s decision to lift the eviction ban clearly breaches its obligations to recognise everyone’s right to physical and mental health under Article 12(1) and 12(2)(c) ICESCR.

The UK Government’s decision affects us all

We must take this moment to reflect on our shared values and consider how to build a safe and healthy environment for us all.

Notably, the Scottish Government extended its ban until March 2021 and the Welsh Government increased the notice period to tenants facing eviction from three to six months before landlords can issue proceedings for possession.

By choosing to keep the eviction ban in place, the UK Government can protect our economic and social rights.

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