The Government has been consulting on whether there is a need for a new specialised Housing Court to resolve disputes, reduce delays and to secure justice in housing cases.
Broadly speaking, housing disputes are presently heard in two forums. The First-Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber) hear wide-ranging matters such as tenant’s breach of covenant, rent repayment orders and adverse possession. However, the county court hears matters relating to possession and disrepair. The Government paper remarks that the “processes and procedures involved can often be confusing for tenants, landlords and property owners in leasehold cases”.
David Smith a policy director for the Residential Landlords Association wrote in the Law Gazette last year that a “key disincentive for landlords is that when something goes seriously wrong, such as a tenant falling into serious rent arrears, neglecting the property, or engaging in anti-social behaviour, they have to resort to the courts to take action”. Smith goes on to state that with a possession case taking an average of 42 weeks to complete, as well as an increase in court fees up to £355, the cost and delay is unsustainable.
The Government Paper states that this 42 week figure relates to both social and private landlord cases and taking private landlord possession cases in isolation, the median average time taken to progress from a claim to possession by the county court bailiff is in fact significantly less at 16.1 weeks. This largely corresponds with our recent experiences in dealing with possession matters, although this can vary greatly from one county court to another.
On one hand it is arguable that four months is a significant amount of time for a landlord to try and regain possession of their property, particularly where there are substantial rental arrears. However, this view does need to be cautioned against the real need for parties to follow the correct procedure, particularly where many cases are dealing with people’s livelihoods.
The consultation period ran until 22 January 2019 and the Government is currently analysing feedback. The Law Society, the independent professional body for solicitors, said it was wrong to radically change the system in favour of a ”relatively small” number of private landlords demanding change. The Society states that further evidence is needed as to why improvements within the current system will not suffice. The Society also recommends that improvements to existing courts and signposting parties to advice and information should ensure cases are dealt with in a timely and efficient manner.
There is some irony in the Government’s consultation, given that the Ministry of Justice has closed 250 hearing centres (including crown courts, county courts and tribunals) since 2010. This forms part of the Government’s £1.2bn digital modernisation programme, which has attracted criticism with many of the remaining courts under-resourced. It is difficult to see why a specialist new Housing Court should be a priority where there are many issues within the justice system, including those raised in the long-awaited review of the cuts to legal aid, which was published by the Government this week.