Residential landlords suffered gravely during the COVID-19 pandemic, not least due to a wide-ranging ban on evictions. A striking case on point concerned a couple who were permitted to stay in their home although a possession order had been issued against them and they owed more than £70,000 in rent arrears.
The couple’s social landlord obtained the order under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 after giving them two months’ notice of the termination of their assured shorthold tenancy. After also obtaining a writ of possession, the landlord would, in normal times, have been entitled to proceed with the couple’s eviction.
That position was, however, complicated by the passage into law of the Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) Regulations 2021 which, subject to a number of exceptions, prevented the eviction of residential tenants during a specified period whilst the pandemic was at its peak.
The landlord launched proceedings seeking a declaration that, as the tenants owed more than six months in rent arrears, one of those exceptions applied. It urged the High Court that to rule otherwise would have a disproportionate discriminatory effect contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Rejecting the landlord’s application, however, the Court noted that the possession order had not been granted, either wholly or partly, on the basis of non-payment of rent. On a true reading of the Regulations, the exception did not apply and the landlord was precluded from enforcing the writ of possession.
The Court noted that the government had powerful policy reasons for adopting the Regulations, which sought to strike a fair balance between the rights of individuals and those of the community during the pandemic. In the unique circumstances, it was fair to restrict the relevant exception to cases where possession orders had been made on grounds of rent arrears.
The Court acknowledged that, given the extent of the couple’s rent arrears, some might well view the outcome of the case as unjust. The pandemic was, however, unprecedented and Parliament had empowered the Secretary of State for Health to decide what measures were appropriate. Any discriminatory impact that the Regulations had on the landlord was justified.