COVID-19: Clarity for landowners on claims and evictions of squatters
22 April 2020
In our recent article (found here) we commented upon measures introduced by the Master of the Rolls and Lord Chief Justice to assist in minimising exposure to and the spread of Covid-19. It is recognised that people should not move house unless strictly necessary. While home owners have more control over whether they wish to sell and move house, tenants and other residential occupiers have less choice and less control. For example, a tenant under an assured shorthold tenancy can be given two months' notice to move (although this has presently been extended under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to three months), and if he or she does not do so, possession proceedings, and ultimately a bailiff eviction, may follow.
The new measures have been designed to reduce the pressure on tenants and other occupiers of properties from having to move house when required to do so by their landlords. The measures (encapsulated in Practice Direction 51Z) amounted to the complete suspension of all possession proceedings for a period of 90 days from 27 March 2020. These measures include the suspension of all bailiff evictions.
Whilst those measures have generally been well received as an appropriate public health measure to stem the rate of infection of the coronavirus, they have not come without criticism. Specifically, the measures apply to all claims, not just those where the landlord wants possession on no-fault grounds, or where tenants have become unable to pay rent as a result of loss of employment, or business drying up (whether or not as a result of the coronavirus outbreak). However, because the measures applied to all claims, it meant (in its original form) that claims against squatters, or trespassers, were also suspended.
The effect of this was that it would not be possible to evict a squatter from land until the 90-day period (from 27 March 2020) had expired, thus prejudicing innocent land and property owners.
It is understood that this was not the intention of the measures that were introduced when the Practice Direction came into force (particularly when these measures are compared against the measures introduced by the Coronavirus Act 2020 and how they specifically apply to certain residential tenancies (see our article on this here) and commercial tenancies (again see our article on this here).
While there is an argument that the eviction of squatters during the Covid-19 lockdown may increase the risk of the spread of infection, it now seems to have been recognised that suspending claims against squatters is a disproportionate measure to be taken, and that it is appropriate to permit such claims to continue in the interests of keeping law and order.
In order to regularise the position, Practice Direction 51Z has now been updated (and can be found here). The update, made on 20 April 2020, is simple. It states that the suspension of claims does not apply to:
- claims against trespassers;
- applications for interim possession orders; or
- applications for case management directions (agreed by the parties).
The revision to the Practice Direction will be welcomed by landowners and practitioners alike as they will enable cases of unlawful squatting and trespass to be dealt with notwithstanding the stay on proceedings generally.
In addition, the original drafting of the Practice Direction was not clear on whether the suspension prevented new claims from being issued at all and whether the suspension applied even when both parties were in agreement as to how the case should proceed. The update to the Practice Direction confirms that procedural steps to be taken where all parties are in agreement and it is our view that claims may still be issued notwithstanding the suspension (they will progress once the suspension is lifted).
In our opinion, all of these revisions to the measures set out in the Practice Direction are appropriate bearing in mind the overriding objective of enabling the court to deal with cases justly and at proportionate cost.
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