The pandemic has brought disputes between landlords and tenants, as well as rent arrears, under the spotlight over the last year due to the financial impact of Covid-19.
The situation has been complicated by a ban on evictions for the majority of the last year. The current ban on bailiff-enforced evictions is due to end on May 31. However, it is expected that there will be a huge backlog of cases for the courts to get through.
For landlords with problem tenants or renters in serious arrears, this could prolong the repossession process, costing them even more in legal fees.
On top of this, the government still intends to abolish Section 21 evictions as part of the Renters’ Reform Bill in the future.
With the aim of reducing the pressure on the courts when the eviction ban is lifted, the government recently launched a pilot for a Housing Possession Mediation Service.
Below is an overview of everything landlords seeking an eviction need to know about the new scheme.
What is the Housing Possession Mediation Service?
Launched by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in February, the Housing Possession Mediation Service
is designed to help landlords and tenants involved in a housing possession court case.
The free service aims to resolve disputes without the need for face-to-face court action. Both sides of the tenancy agreement work with a trained, neutral mediator, who will help to identify issues and propose steps that can be taken to solve them.
If all parties agree on an outcome which is deemed to be an acceptable resolution, the case will be closed. However, if it is unsuccessful, the case will continue to a court hearing, although the court will not be made aware of anything that was said at mediation stage.
Mediation can be requested by landlords or tenants at the review stage of their possession case if no initial agreement can be made.
MHCLG says mediation can be less stressful and expensive than going through to a full court hearing, where additional fees and expenses will apply.
How does the mediation scheme work?
Once a case has been referred, the Society of Mediators aims to conduct the confidential mediation process remotely (by telephone) within 10 days.
During a mediation appointment, the mediator will speak to each party separately - e.g. landlords don't speak directly to the tenant.
They will try and help each party to explore the options available to them and reach an agreement, although the government says it will not force either side to try and reach a settlement.
To get the most from mediation, landlords and tenants are advised to be open and flexible, willing to find a resolution, be clear with what they want to say and able to answer questions.
All parties are welcome to access legal advice during the mediation, although this is not always possible.
Despite the fact mediation may help stakeholders avoid a full court hearing, it will not delay the ongoing court process and all court directions must be complied with.
If the mediation succeeds, an agreement which explains what actions each party must take next will be signed and then put in front of a judge for approval. If the agreement is broken by either party, the other party can apply for the court to enforce it. If unsuccessful, the case will continue to the substantive face-to-face court hearing.
How did the rental sector react?
Mark Hayward, policy adviser at Propertymark, commented: "The whole of the private rented sector has been impacted as a result of Covid-19, but we must recognise that the courts already faced a backlog of cases prior to the pandemic."
"Although the new mediation pilot will help, it is important to take steps back towards normality so that both landlords and tenants have access to the justice system, while putting measures in place to offer further support to tenants who have built up Covid-related arrears through no fault of their own."
Meanwhile, Ben Beadle of the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA), which has its own mediation scheme, said: “Conciliation is a key element of the NRLA’s Renters’ Reform Bill proposals and it is our view that with the Renters’ Reform Bill rapidly approaching there is a pressing need for a more efficient system, which provides easy, convenient access to resolving disputes for landlords and tenants alike.”
Despite lockdown restrictions easing, rent arrears and long-term evictions issues are likely to remain a problem for some landlords and the government’s mediation scheme may provide a useful alternative to long-winded and expensive court action.
It’s vital that landlords – with the help of a reputable local letting agent – pursue eviction as a last resort and do everything they can to solve issues with tenants before they escalate into something more serious. You can see our guide on how to manage Covid-19 rent arrears here
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