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It all seems like a very long time ago – but on 23 March 2020 the United Kingdom locked down for the first time in response to the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. This catastrophic event resulted in unprecedented changes to daily life across the world, including in England and Wales.
As part of the effort to slow the spread of the virus, the UK Government passed legislation imposing restrictions on the activities of bailiffs, also known as enforcement agents, in England and Wales. These restrictions were designed to balance the need for debt collection and enforcement with the need to protect vulnerable individuals and communities during a time of crisis.
The primary legislation governing evictions during the COVID-19 crisis was the Coronavirus Act 2020. This Act introduced a number of measures designed to protect tenants from eviction during the pandemic. Under the Act, landlords were required to give tenants at least six months’ notice before seeking possession of a property, with some exceptions for cases where tenants had engaged in anti-social behavior or had more than six months’ rent arrears.
The government also introduced a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. This meant that landlords were not able to evict tenants from their properties, except in cases where there were exceptional circumstances, such as instances of anti-social behavior or where a tenant posed a risk to public health. The moratorium was initially introduced in March 2020 and was extended several times, with the most recent extension ending on May 31, 2021.
The restrictions placed on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis were designed to provide much-needed protection to tenants who were struggling to pay their rent as a result of the pandemic. While these measures undoubtedly had an impact on landlords and their ability to manage their properties, they were seen as a necessary response to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic.
To enforce the moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis, the UK Government and the Lord Chancellor issued a series of directives and instruments to prevent enforcement agents, including bailiffs, from carrying out evictions during this period. In the history of Sheriffs, and now High Court Enforcement Officers, this direct intervention and guidance from the UK Lord Chancellor through the Ministry of Justice is unprecedented. Please see a copy of the Lord Chancellor’s letter set out later in this article.
The primary instrument used to enforce the moratorium on evictions was The Coronavirus Act 2020 and the supported Regulations being The Residential Tenancies: Protection from Eviction) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020. These regulations were introduced in March 2020 and amended the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 to prevent enforcement agents from evicting tenants during the COVID-19 crisis. The Regulations made it illegal to conduct an eviction, with some very narrow exceptions for cases of anti-social behaviour and where a tenant posed a risk to public health.
The Lord Chancellor also issued guidance to enforcement agents/bailiffs, on how to comply with the Regulations and perform their duties during the COVID-19 crisis. This guidance, which was updated several times during the pandemic, set out the procedures that enforcement agents were required to follow when attending at people’s homes and business to conduct enforcement activities. Such guidance was very necessary as left to its own devices the enforcement industry would have come to a complete stop during the entire period of the pandemic. However, the intervention by the then Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, with letters sent and signed in his name, provided a large measure of clarity as to how bailiffs could, in much narrower circumstances, continue to operate.
The guidance was practical. It set out the need for enforcement agents to take additional precautions to prevent the spread of the virus when conducting enforcement activities, including wearing personal protective equipment and maintaining social distancing. For High Court Enforcement Officers, evictions were treated separately from the enforcement of money judgments. Writs of Possession were only to be enforced in very narrow circumstances for the duration of the Regulations, whilst the rules on enforcing money judgments through Writs of Control were widened albeit with the same reminder to take precautions to ensure that the chance of spreading the virus were reduced.
We all know that the pandemic had a significant impact on individuals and communities across the UK, and for us as enforcement professionals this was particularly true in relation to housing and homelessness. Never before had we seen the UK Ministry of Justice enact so much legislation in such a rapid programme of protection.
Whilst we applaud this in terms of protecting the public, we are disappointed that the Government when pushed could produce delegated legislation quickly but has failed on numerous occasions to answer the calls of High Court Enforcement Officers to deliver change to improve the overall enforcement process.
An example of this failing is The Jurisdiction Act of 1991 which still prevents Judgment Creditors with judgments issued under the Consumer Credit Act 1984 from transferring these to the High Court for enforcement. This makes absolutely no sense and for over 30 years the Government has been “kicking the can down the road” to make a policy change. This is sharp contrast to its ability to issue a series of complex Regulations when it came to COVID.
In relation to protecting people from eviction the Government did introduce a series of moratoriums on evictions from March 2020 onwards.
The initial legislation started with the Coronavirus Act 2020 which introduced a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. This meant that landlords were not able to evict tenants from their properties, except in cases where there were exceptional circumstances, such as instances of anti-social behavior or where a tenant posed a risk to public health. The moratorium was initially introduced in March 2020 and was extended several times, with the most recent extension ending on May 31, 2021.
The Government then introduced a series of other moratoriums on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. These moratoriums were designed to provide much-needed protection to tenants who were struggling to pay their rent as a result of the pandemic. While they undoubtedly had an impact on landlords and their ability to manage their properties, they were seen as a necessary response to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic.
The moratoriums were contained in delegated legislation as follows |
The dates of the moratorium introduced by each piece of legislation that prevented evictions in England during the COVID-19 crisis:
It’s worth noting that the different pieces of legislation introduced slightly different protections and restrictions on evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. However, all of them were designed to put a brake on the enforcement of court orders for possession and money judgments until the COVID crisis abated and life could return to normal.
In addition to the primary and delegated legislation, on August 21, 2020, the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, wrote a letter to bailiffs and enforcement agents in England and Wales, providing guidance on how to perform their duties during the COVID-19 crisis. The letter emphasized the need to balance the need for debt collection and enforcement with the need to protect vulnerable individuals and communities during a time of crisis. Here is the wording of the letter:
I am writing to thank you for your hard work and professionalism during the COVID-19 pandemic. Your role in the justice system is critical to maintaining law and order, and I am grateful for the work that you do.
As you are aware, the pandemic has had a significant impact on individuals and communities across the UK, particularly in relation to housing and homelessness. The government has introduced a series of measures to support tenants and prevent evictions during this challenging time.
As enforcement agents, it is important that you balance the need for debt collection and enforcement with the need to protect vulnerable individuals and communities during a time of crisis. I would like to remind you of the importance of following the guidance set out by the government and taking all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
This includes wearing personal protective equipment, maintaining social distancing, and ensuring that you follow the correct procedures when carrying out evictions. I would also encourage you to be mindful of the impact that your actions may have on vulnerable individuals and communities, and to take a compassionate and understanding approach wherever possible.
I appreciate that these are challenging times, and I would like to thank you once again for your hard work and dedication during this period. Please do not hesitate to contact the Ministry of Justice if you have any questions or concerns.
Robert Buckland QC MP Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Whilst we feel disappointed that the Government has failed to engage with the debate on The Jurisdiction Act 1991 by allowing Judgment Creditors the opportunity to choose who enforces their judgment (County Court Bailiff or High Court Enforcement Officer), we supported the Government’s intervention during the pandemic as a public health initiative.
On reflection perhaps the response was “overkill” on how to deal with the pandemic – but that is very easy to say in hindsight – and whilst the Government worked through the issues relating to the impact of COVID it did the best it could to protect people in the rented sector from eviction.
The lessons to be learned from the COVID era – which are now largely in place should another pandemic hit – are to err on the side of caution and to keep all enforcement professionals updated by direct communication from the Lord Chancellor. This prevents larger agencies or Associations dictating best practice, when in fact they had no idea, and allows the administration of justice to continue, albeit in controlled and limited circumstances.
We are proud to say that Shergroup Enforcement navigated the entire COVID period with care and empathy and even documented our enforcement activities in Channel 5’s, “Call The Bailiffs, Time to Pay Up” TV programme.
This was a unique moment in everyone’s personal history and in the laws that were created to protect the entire UK from the threat of COVID. Let us hope it is not repeated anytime soon as we appreciate so many people on all sides of the enforcement process lost out in the wake of these protective measures.
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Last updated | 19 July 2023
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