Rent arrears - dos and don’ts

Watch a Directgov video where District Judge Stephen Gold tells you what you should and shouldn’t do if you fall behind with your rent payments and face being evicted by your landlord.

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What should I do?

District Judge Stephen Gold: The best way to lose your home is to stop paying your rent. Your landlord will almost certainly need a court order to evict you. For that order there will have to be a court case. You will receive court papers relating to the case and will have your chance to put your side of the story.

Often, the judge at court will have the power to allow you to remain in your home provided you make certain payments. But sometimes the only thing in doubt will be not if you have to go but when.

So it makes sense to treat rent as a priority debt. If you are on housing benefit, cooperate when it comes up for renewal. If you do not receive it and think you should, apply for it and give the housing benefit people all the paperwork they need.

And it also makes sense to explain any problems you have to your landlord if you feel able to contact them directly. Either way, you can obtain advice from your local CAB (Citizen’s Advice Bureau), Shelter or National Debtline. You’ll find their phone numbers in the Yellow Pages and your landlord may have given you their details, anyway. This advice will be free and it will be impartial.

What if my landlord takes me to court?

District Judge Stephen Gold: If and when the landlord starts off a court case, you will receive a claim form which states what your landlord is alleging and asking for. It will also give details of when the hearing is to take place and at which county court. Do not ignore the claim form. Again, you can obtain free and impartial advice. Details of where to go for it will be with the claim form or you can obtain them from the county court.

With the claim form will be a defence form. Answer the questions in the defence. Amongst other things, the defence will ask whether you want the court to consider allowing you to  pay arrears by instalments and how much you can afford to pay in addition to the current rent.

Assuming you want to stay in your home, it would be dangerous not to attend the hearing. Even if you have to take time off work to be at court or it is very inconvenient to turn up, be there. There is too much at stake to risk not doing so and to hope that what is in your defence or in a letter you have written to the court will be good enough without you as well. Only if you have reached agreement with the landlord about everything and you have confirmed that agreement in writing to the court, should you consider being absent.

Can I get advice?

District Judge Stephen Gold: At the court there may be an advice desk with a solicitor or CAB or other advice worker. Go to them. It is irrelevant that you may not have tried to get advice previously – they won’t bite but help. They can advise you on the day and may also be able to accompany you into the hearing and speak on your behalf to the judge. This help is also free and impartial. And should you want to take an adult member of the family or friend with you for a bit of moral support then the judge will usually allow them to come into the hearing with you.

What can the judge do?

District Judge Stephen Gold: The first point the judge will have to look at is whether you have broken your tenancy in the way the landlord alleges.

Then, assuming that you have, whether before the case was taken to court, the landlord followed the correct procedures including sending or handing you a notice that they were seeking possession or a notice to quit. And, where it applies, that the protocol which we have looked at has been followed. And if the judge is satisfied about all that – and additionally that a private landlord has complied with the new law about protecting tenants’ deposits in lettings after 5 April 2007, what is to be done? Should you be ordered to leave, to give possession? And if so, when?  Or should an order be made that you leave on a future date which would only be fixed if you failed to keep to a requirement to pay the current rent and a set amount by instalments off the arrears? That’s called a postponed order. Or should there be a suspended order which sets the date for you to go but paralyses it so long as you keep up to a requirement like this. There are practical important differences between a postponed order and a suspended order.

What sort of order the judge can make will depend on the type of tenancy you have and the grounds for possession which the landlord has relied on.  This can be complicated and you may want to get that expert advice on it.

Here are a couple of examples. If you rent from a local authority, the judge will probably have to be satisfied that it is reasonable to make the possession order against you which your landlord is asking for. So, the judge may be persuaded to allow you to stay though the landlord wants you out.

On the other hand, if you have a private landlord and owed at least two months’ rent when you received the notice seeking possession and still owe at least two months’ rent when the case is heard, then, so long as the landlord has followed the necessary procedures, then generally, an order for possession there must be. Usually, in this situation, you would be ordered to leave within a fortnight. If that would cause exceptional hardship, then the judge can allow longer but never longer than six weeks from the date he makes his order.

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