No-fault evictions are a bit like that purely decorative radiator, proudly frozen against your bedroom wall, that your landlord promised would be fixed a winter ago. Except your landlord was Theresa May, and a winter ago was April 2019.
In announcement after reannouncement, the government has pledged for four years to scrap no-fault evictions in England, but has yet to deliver. There are all sorts of reasons for this – cycling through 35 housing ministers in the last ten minutes doesn’t help – but one in particular intrigued me when I spotted it in a new report by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee.
No-fault evictions keep the strain off an “already struggling” courts system, the MPs say in their report on reforming the private rented sector. “Landlords are perhaps most concerned about the capacity of the courts to expedite possession claims … The courts system is already struggling to process housing cases quickly enough. The pressures on the courts will be exacerbated by the repeal of section 21 [no-fault evictions], as landlords will seek to regain possession [by applying for a court hearing] under section 8.”
The committee finds that another potential government reform – restricting mid-tenancy rent rises – would burden the court system too. “If this proposal has the desired effect of giving tenants greater confidence to challenge rent increases, it ought to result in a heavier workload for the tribunal,” the report states. “However, this is already a time-consuming and resource-intensive process.”
The committee says: “Both these proposals present a real risk that the current systems will be overwhelmed, and there will be a logjam with lengthy delays before verdicts are reached.”
To ensure current plans are neither diluted to avoid burdening courts, nor result in extra pressure on the courts, the committee has recommended a specialist housing court. “The government has rejected this idea, for reasons we find unsatisfactory,” write the MPs. “It is not clear whether the government fully appreciates the extent to which an unreformed courts system could undermine its tenancy reforms.”
The MPs’ frustration is understandable. But even if their recommendation was accepted there is always the risk in this government’s hands that a specialist housing court would simply replicate the failures of the civil courts presently dealing with housing cases. There is no substitute for proper investment in and improvement of the civil justice system, as the Social Market Foundation think tank points out.
As with getting that broken radiator fixed, there is still some way to go before these ever-delayed reforms become law. And it is hardly news that renters’ rights never seem to be the priority. What is politically significant is how a seemingly unrelated bit of the state – the courts system – could be having a direct impact on the rights and daily lives of the five million or so people who rent in England.
Our crumbling courts are a major casualty of government cuts, but rarely receive the mainstream attention of services like the NHS. Similar to the relative neglect of social care, this is because far fewer people will have direct contact with civil courts in their lifetimes. But the courts’ relationship with renter rights, acknowledged by MPs and communicated to the government, now explodes that comforting myth. Even when a seemingly distant part of the state sneezes, a lot of us catch cold. Time for a new radiator.