Evictions are to be halted across much of England and Wales after bailiffs agreed not to enforce court orders against tenants living under tough coronavirus restrictions.
The move means people in areas such as Greater Manchester, Merseyside, London and much of the northeast of England are protected from being removed from their homes.
However, housing campaigners warned that while bailiffs will not physically remove people from their homes, evictions can still proceed through the courts, leaving many people facing a looming threat of being kicked out as soon as restrictions are eased.
After large parts of England and Wales were placed under more stringent rules, Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, wrote to bailiffs’ trade associations requesting that they do not carry out evictions in tier 2 and tier 3 areas.
"We would request that your members should instruct the enforcement agents working under their authorisation not to enter properties that are classified as local alert level 2 (high) or 3 (very high)."
He added that the situation was rapidly changing and would be kept under review. Wales is not under the three-tier system. Evictions will not take place during a 17-day “firebreak” lockdown that began on Friday evening.
Members of the High Court Enforcement Officers Association have agreed to the request, which is likely to mean that people in tier 2 and 3 areas will not be evicted until at least 12 January.
A suspension of evictions is already in place over the Christmas period between 11 December and 11 January.
Fears have been growing that a sharp rise in evictions is on the way as hundreds of thousands of tenants fall behind with their rent due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has delivered a huge blow to many households’ incomes.
"Now is not the time for people to be kicked out of their homes," said Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter.
However, she cautioned that the justice secretary’s request did not stop evictions proceeding altogether.
“Other parts of the process – such as the issuing of eviction notices and scheduling of court hearings – may still continue.
"Many people will still be left with a pending eviction hanging over their heads.
Shelter and landlord organisations are calling on the government to do more to prevent evictions in the first place.
"With the country in the grip of a tough recession, the government should offer struggling renters emergency financial relief to help them clear ‘Covid-arrears’," Ms Neate added.
"This, beside measures to strengthen the welfare safety net, provides the best shot at keeping people safe in their homes.”
Chris Norris, the National Residential Landlords Association’s policy director, called for more government support for tenants in arrears.
“Whilst it is important that the courts are able to hear the most serious possession cases such as those related to anti-social behaviour, illegal activity such as fraud and extreme rent arrears, our focus needs to be on sustaining tenancies wherever possible," he said.
“This means the government needs to bring forward a comprehensive financial package that will help tenants to pay off rent arrears built as a result of the pandemic.”
Andrew Wilson, chair of the High Court Enforcement Officers Association, said: “This is in line with the interpretation of the guidance that our members had already taken, but it is very useful to have it confirmed in writing from the lord chancellor.”
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