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New guidance from ARLA Propertymark’s legal helpline aims to provide landlords and letting agents with greater clarity based on frequent queries they have received as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

More than a week into the official Coronavirus “crisis” and there is still no clear guidance on the practical help that tenants can expect over the coming months to pay their rent, whilst how landlords and agents are expected to deal with the consequences of any “rent holiday” is, at this stage, pure speculation.

A request for guidance on a whole range of issues affecting the letting industry has so far not drawn any response from the Ministry of Housing. 

Based on recent questions received from letting agents, here are a few thoughts from the landlord and tenant team at Dutton Gregory LLP Solicitors, which manages ARLA Propertymark’s legal helpline, in response to some of the calls received over the last seven days:

WHAT DO I DO IF A TENANT REFUSES ACCESS FOR A GAS SAFETY INSPECTION?

There are of course a few practical things we can suggest. Ask a tenant if they would be happy for a gas engineer to visit the property if the contractor was suitably protected – face mask, gloves, etc. Point out that it is for the tenant’s own safety that these checks need to be undertaken at least once a year.

If a tenant persists on refusing access, we are suggesting that you drop a line to the local environmental health officer pointing out the dilemma which is facing you and your landlord and ask for the local authority’s guidance. Personally, I do not expect that any response will be forthcoming but at least it puts down a marker that you and your landlord have tried to gain access. I think it is inconceivable that having been warned, a local authority will start enforcement action now or even once the crisis has passed. However, tenants who are refusing access must be contacted as soon as the politicians tell us that the crisis has ended.

THE GOVERNMENT SAYS THAT WE CANNOT SERVE NOTICES OR START NEW POSSESSION PROCEEDINGS

A pronouncement by our Prime Minister and the appropriate legislation being in place, are two quite different things.

The Coronavirus Bill 2020 was introduced to the House of Commons last week. Whilst it gives ministers the ability to make changes to the way in which the court system operates throughout the country, as yet there is no legislation to change the effectiveness of either a Section 8 or a Section 21 notice. Indeed, at the moment there are no specific regulations preventing a landlord issuing possession proceedings or enforcing an existing court order.

COURT HEARINGS

Again, the emergency legislation introduced to Parliament does not limit or cancel existing court proceedings at this time. However, courts are being encouraged to conduct more court hearings by telephone than ever before. This is bound to be a trend that will increase over the coming weeks until such time that the courts themselves are actually suspended.

EVICTIONS

There is no specific legislation preventing the enforcement of a current possession order and if needs be the eviction of a defaulting tenant. However, on Monday of this week, bailiffs in Portsmouth unilaterally decided that for health and safety reasons, they would not be entering a property where there was the remotest suspicion that an occupant might have the Coronavirus. This decision has now been replicated, more or less, across the country. It seems to have the backing of the Ministry of Justice, more I suspect, on the grounds of health and safety than a desire to ignore an existing court order. For the moment, we have not heard of a similar moratorium where possession cases have been transferred to the High Court for enforcement and where, of course, a landlord has the ability to instruct a “private” bailiff, a High Court Enforcement Officer.

Things are changing literally hour by hour but we will be here as long as it is considered safe to be at our desks to pass on what guidance we can.