What I saw inside Merseyside's evictions courts
'You are on the verge of losing your children’s home'
Dear readers — this week’s story is about eviction hearings. We collaborated with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in a nationwide reporting project to monitor the impact of the pandemic on housing evictions.
For our piece, Finn Oldfield sat in on days of hearings at St Helens County Court and Liverpool Civil and Family Court, to understand how the law works, and what kinds of circumstances are pushing people into arrears on their rent.
If you have experience in this area, please do get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) to help with our future reporting.
By Finn Oldfield
“You are on the verge of losing your children’s home,” the judge tells the defendant, a mother of three. I can’t see Ms Smith’s face from where I’m sitting at the back of the courtroom, but her shoulders are quivering.
Her plea isn’t well-rehearsed, but her fear sounds real: “I was on the frontline looking after other people when I couldn’t look after my own family,” she says. “I struggled with my own mental health in lockdown. I will not miss a payment, I have a permanent contract now, I have nowhere else to go, I need this for my children.”
Her voice breaks when she talks about her kids. Their father, Mr Denton, sits to her left. They are separated, but he provides childcare for them while she works her zero-hours job as a care worker.
Ms Smith, from Liverpool, tells the court that she has been unable to pay her arrears, which currently stand at well over seven thousand pounds, for several reasons. Firstly, her zero-hours contract failed to provide a steady income. Secondly, she’d fallen into debt with her council tax. And thirdly, a series of payday loans she took out in order to stay afloat had pushed her further into the red.
“Why should I believe what you say?” the judge asks her. They tell her that if she’s evicted, she and her children won’t be granted social housing again.
The landlord pushing to evict the family is a social housing provider. One of their arguments is that, by staying in the property while in rent arrears, Ms Smith is preventing other people from accessing affordable social housing.
“I know I was stupid before, but I will pay it. I’ll pay every last penny.”
“It’s a bit late,” the judge says.
After a tense 45-minute exchange, the ruling on her case is adjourned for 8 weeks.
“I’ve given you your last chance,” the judge warns her. She goes to great lengths to remind Ms Smith that she will not hesitate to evict she and her children if she fails to pay off her debts in that time. This is despite the fact that during the hearing, the court heard that at the current rate of repayment, the arrears would take 11 and a half years to pay off.
I approached Ms Smith after the decision and told her I’m sorry for what is happening. She looked at me through tears and simply said: “Don’t worry about it.”
‘I am not convinced anything is going to change’
This summer, I spent many long and sometimes dispiriting hours in St Helens County Court and Liverpool Civil and Family Court, covering eviction hearings.
I was taking part in a nationwide investigative reporting project with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism to monitor the impact of the pandemic on housing evictions. Between us, as a group of journalists up and down the country, we sat in over 550 hearings where private and social landlords moved to evict their tenants.
During the investigation, the Bureau found that life-changing decisions which often leave people homeless are made in an average of ten minutes in court. In almost 60% of hearings neither the tenant nor their lawyer were in attendance — so no one was there to argue against the eviction.
If you are behind on your rent, your housing provider has the right to take you to court to settle the matter and it can lead to you being evicted from your home. This happens in what is called a possession hearing. The Bureau found that, in some instances, landlords were bringing tenants to court over just two months of unpaid rent.
Possession hearings like Ms Smith’s were paused in England and Wales for six months from March 2020 to September 2020, and a ban on bailiff evictions in England was lifted at the end of May 2021. The thinking was that the economic and personal turmoil of the pandemic meant it just wasn’t right that people should be evicted from their homes. But that pause was only temporary.
During the first lockdown in early 2020, politicians and campaigners warned that urgent changes to rental laws were needed to stop a “cliff-edge” of evictions. They alerted government ministers that under the existing rules, judges would have no option but to grant an eviction if a tenant fell behind on rent for two months or more. That is because the Housing Act lays out “mandatory grounds” for eviction, meaning as long as procedural rules are followed, such as giving the right amount of notice, a tenant has no argument against being evicted.
Now, an unprecedented analysis of more than 550 rental hearings in England and Wales can reveal that, just as experts warned, the vast majority (85%) of possession cases were on mandatory grounds. The fall-out from Covid-19 was mentioned in a third of all cases that ended in a possession order. Judges were powerless to do anything other than order an eviction, because the inflexible legal rules left them with no discretion to take individual circumstances into account.
In one hearing I witnessed, a solicitor told the court that his client, Mr Henley from St Helens, had struggled to pay off arrears due to the immense stress of his son being hospitalised with severe pneumonia and sepsis. But the case was brought on mandatory grounds, meaning the personal circumstances were rendered irrelevant in the eyes of the law.
Out of the 554 private and social landlord cases that were recorded during our investigation, 270 ended in an outright possession order — nearly 50%. Out of these 270 cases, 88 mentioned Covid as a factor. Out of the 18 cases I observed across Liverpool and St Helens, 11 led to a possession order being granted. And Covid was mentioned as a factor in 7 of the hearings I sat in.
Evicted in 10 minutes
In one hearing I attended, the defendant, Ms Evans, was not present. The solicitor seeking to evict her pushed for her to be evicted in 7 days, instead of the usual 14-28. Not only this, but they asked for the matter to be transferred to the High Court to enable “stronger enforcement of the law”.
The Judge dismissed this request and replied that “you want to see this lady with her bags in 7 days’ time” and that the solicitor was trying to create a “can’t pay, we’ll take it away” scenario. Ms Evans lost her home in exactly 10 minutes.
During the investigation, Covid was mentioned in several ways. Some tenants had developed symptoms or were in hospital so could not attend their hearings; some had lost their income in the pandemic because they, for instance, ran hospitality venues; and some had been crippled by poor mental health from working on the frontline.
On my first day court reporting, I overheard a defendant tell their social housing provider in the waiting area that Covid had caused them to lose their job, which meant they had to rely on Universal Credit to cover most of their monthly rent arrears. This was before the decision to increase National Insurance contributions and to cut Universal Credit was announced.
Siobhan Taylor-Ward, a solicitor at Vauxhall Community Law Centre, told the Bureau: “The majority of [my] clients have had mental health issues which have either arisen or been exacerbated due to the pandemic and lockdown and their resulting housing issues. They describe feeling anxious and afraid of the hearings… not having advice or support or feeling their case is hopeless and therefore deciding there is no point in attending.”
In one case, a representative of a local social housing provider cast doubt on the tenant’s claim of having tested positive for Covid, insinuating that they were using it as an excuse to not attend their hearing.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, called the Bureau’s findings “worrying” and brought attention to the fact that the ripple effects of the pandemic have left millions of renters struggling to stay afloat. “More renters will be in danger of losing their homes in the months ahead,” she said.
Figures on just how many people have fallen into arrears throughout the pandemic vary, and all are based on surveys and estimates. In May, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that 400,000 renting households have either been served an eviction notice or have been told they may be evicted, equating to 5% of all renters.
The charity added that “around a million renting households are worried about being evicted in the next three months (11% of all renters), half of which are families with children. Families with children, BAME households and those on lower incomes are disproportionately worried about paying rent and being evicted in the next three months.”
As the government’s latest Household Resilience Survey (undertaken in November and December 2020 and published in April 2021) showed: “In November-December 2020, 9% of private renters (353,000 households) were currently in arrears, up from 3% in 2019-20… A further 8% of private renters said they were very or fairly likely to fall behind with rent payments in the next three months, representing approximately 278,000 households… Overall, 22% of private renters reported finding it more difficult to keep up with rent payments since June-July 2020. The main reasons cited for such difficulties were being furloughed on reduced pay (15%) or working fewer hours/less over time (14%).”
Renting reform campaigners, like Generation Rent, have called for ministers to finalise the long-awaited tenancy reforms to ensure renters have a chance to remain in their homes. In addition, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has called on the Government to bring forward a specific financial package to support tenants to repay rent arrears caused by Covid, and to accelerate long-promised plans to abolish ‘no-fault’ evictions under Section 21 of the Housing Act.
Responding to this reporting project, a government spokesperson said: “We will bring forward further proposals in due course, including the abolition of Section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions and further support for landlords where repossession is necessary.”
Names of tenants have been changed to protect their privacy.
Go deeper: Evicted in less than 10 minutes: Read the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s broader story summarising the reporting project across the country.