Can the suggested reforms proposed in the Renters Reform Bill lead to more rapid justice for landlords and tenants?

The RLA Policy Director, Dr David Smith, reviews the Bill, and puts forward the view that a dedicated Housing Court is a vital, but (so far) also a missing element of reforms.

This is a piece which first appeared in FT-Advisor on the 10th February 2020.   

Introduction

As the Government acts to end the ability of landlords to regain possession of a property with no explanation, it needs to address one of the major reasons this is used.

Landlords are forced to revert to this when it takes an average of over five months to go through the alternative process to have a tenant removed which requires applying to the court and waiting for the slow wheels of justice to move. During this time the tenant may be refusing to pay any rent or possibly causing anti-social behaviour and being a nuisance to neighbours.

For tenants the process for taking action against a landlord who fails to meet their obligations can be just as frustrating and very confusing. A report by Citizens Advice in 2017 found that 45 per cent of tenants wanting to take action against a landlord who takes longer to complete repairs than is normally reasonable are put off by the delay involved. 54 percent of them are put off by the complexity of the process.

This is hardly surprising given that, depending on the type of problem they have, tenants and landlords can take their case to the county court, the magistrates’ court or the property tribunal.

A failing system

Both tenants and landlords are being let down by a court system that is failing to provide justice swiftly when things go wrong.

Data obtained by the RLA shows that the time taken for a claim to be processed varies from over 30 weeks in London to 14 weeks in the South West. Even the latter figure is a long time for a landlord to go without rent or for a tenant to wait for repair to the heating.

The Government has said that its forthcoming Renters’ Reform Bill will include plans that will give landlords “more rights to gain possession of their property through the courts where there is a legitimate need for them to do so.”

It has also pledged to “improve the court process for landlords to make it quicker and easier for them to get their property back sooner.”

A suggested housing court model

Instead of tinkering with the current system, what is needed is the establishment of a dedicated housing court. This could build on the work of the current Property Tribunal and cover matters such as property standards, whether landlords are meeting their legal obligations and repossession cases.

Making use of the Property Tribunal’s in-house surveyors and inspectors would reduce the need for costly, external experts and the more informal operation of the Tribunal, such as holding hearings in local buildings like schools, would also make it less daunting and more accessible for tenants and landlords.

The opportunity would be created to decide cases using Alternative Dispute Resolution and to use online courts so that the majority of paperwork and case management could be dealt with electronically cutting down the need for hearings which a major cause of delays.

Conclusions

The idea [of a Housing Court] has the support of the parliamentary select committee overseeing housing, leading think tanks and the consumer organisation, Which?.

Indeed the Government even consulted on establishing such a court and yet, over a year after this closed, no firm proposals have been published.

A housing court is needed to give confidence to landlords and tenants.

RLA research shows that over 90 per cent of landlords support the idea. It would give them the assurance they need that where they want to take back a property for legitimate reasons they can do so in a timely and effective way.

For tenants they would be clear about where to go to pursue their rights on issues around property disrepair and landlords failing to abide by their legal duties and requirements. It would provide a faster route for redress to tackle bad landlords and bad housing.

This article was first published by the Financial Times on 10 February 2020. Please see above for a link to the orginal article.

The article is reproduced with kind permission of the Financial Times.