This note sets out how the Coronavirus Act 2020 (“the Act”) affects both business and residential tenancies taking into account the Governmental advisory guidance to help understand the implications of the Act.
As the situation is subject to change, the Government urges all landlords and tenants to abide by the latest Government guidance on COVID-19, which can be found here.
Landlords cannot evict business tenants on the grounds of non-payment of rent whilst the Coronavirus emergency continues. This currently applies from 26 March to 30 June 2020 (“the relevant period”) unless subsequently extended.
Forfeiture for non-payment of rent
During the relevant period the landlord cannot enforce a right of re-entry for non-payment of rent (the definition of rent includes service charge and insurance premium), whether by peaceable re-entry or in court proceedings. To protect the landlord’s position, the right of re-entry can only be waived during the relevant period by an express waiver in writing. These provisions do not apply to any other type of breach of covenant.
Where forfeiture proceedings for non-payment of rent are already on foot, the court cannot make an order for possession which expires before the end of the relevant period. In some cases the court will have made an order for possession which only takes effect if the tenant fails to do something (e.g. pay the arrears or instalments) by a certain date. In the High Court, if the tenant applies to vary the order the court must ensure that the tenant does not have to give possession before the end of the relevant period. In the County Court, the period during which the tenant has to pay cannot be before the last day of the relevant period (as in force at the date of the order). For existing orders, the period within which the tenant must pay the arrears is automatically extended to the end of the relevant period.
Opposing the grant of a new tenancy on the grounds of persistent delay in paying rent
Where a landlord opposes the grant of a new tenancy on the ground of persistent delay in paying rent, any failure to pay rent during the relevant period is to be disregarded.
The Government has brought in several restrictions in relation to residential possession. Firstly, the Act lengthens the notice period required during the relevant period. For residential tenancies, the “relevant period” set out in the Act is from 26 March to 30 September 2020; unless subsequently extended.
Section 8 Notices
Possession proceedings under section 8 of the Housing Act 1988 have always required the service of a notice of intention to bring proceedings for possession. The minimum period of the notice depended on the particular ground for possession relied on – from immediately, in the case of an occupier who has committed an indictable offence, to two months in the case of a former owner-occupier who wants his home back. During the relevant period, all notice periods are extended to three months. The court retains its power to dispense with service of a notice or to abridge the time.
Section 21 Notices
The Act extends the minimum notice period under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 (no fault eviction) from two months to three months.
Other Private Sector Tenancies
No amendments have been made to the law affecting private sector tenancies which do not fall within the Rent Acts or the Housing Act – essentially tenancies at a very low rent (less than £1,000 pa in Greater London, £250 elsewhere) or a very high rent (in excess of £100,000 pa).
Possession claims suspended
From 27 March 2020 for a period of 90 days (i.e. up to 25 June 2020) there is a suspension of housing possession cases in the Court. This affects new or existing claims, so effectively they cannot be progressed during this period. This is in line with current public health advice to stop all non-essential movement. The Government’s strong advice to landlords is not to commence new notices seeking possession during the current time without a “very good reason” for doing so.
Maintenance and safety
Landlords should still carry out essential and urgent work to ensure that rented properties are safe. Examples given in the Governmental guidance include testing the fire alarm, roof repairs where there is a leak, boiler and plumbing repairs, broken white goods and security problems e.g. a broken window or door. Landlords should take a “pragmatic, common sense approach” to resolving issues. Where COVID-19 restrictions prevent landlords from meeting routine obligations they should not be unfairly penalised. However, the guidance specifically refers to landlords making every effort to abide by existing gas safety and electrical safety regulations (the latter comes into effect for new tenancies from 1 July 2020). Landlords must demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to comply with the law. If landlords are not able to engage a contractor or gain access to the property due to COVID-19 restrictions they should document their attempts and any responses. The relevant legislation already contains provisions where the landlord will not have breached his duty if he has taken all reasonable steps.
General governmental guidance
The general message is that the landlord and tenant relationship should continue as normal as far as is possible i.e. the tenant should continue to pay rent and adhere to all other terms in the tenancy agreement. Landlords should continue to comply with their obligations as well. Where the tenant is unable to pay rent due to Coronavirus related difficulties, the tenant should speak to their landlord at the earliest opportunity. Landlords are requested to be flexible and offer support and understanding to their tenants as part of the national effort during this national emergency. Both parties are encouraged to agree a sensible way forward including for example, to agree a lower rent and a payment plan going forward.
Where there are financial difficulties for the landlord where the tenant is not able to pay rent due to Coronavirus related difficulties, mortgage lenders have agreed to offer payment holidays of up to three months including for buy-to-let mortgages.
There may well be further changes depending on how the situation develops. The Government has the power to alter the notice period required by substituting a period of up to six months. They may well also extend the suspension period on possession claims.