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TENANTS IN RENT ARREARS IN KEY LEGAL VICTORY

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Two Bristol City Council tenants today struck a blow for tens of thousands of people caught in a 'twilight zone' of...
Two Bristol City Council tenants today struck a blow for tens of thousands of people caught in a 'twilight zone' of constant fear of eviction over rent arrears.

Mohamud Hassan and Jane Glastonbury were at the forefront of an Appeal Court test case which culminated in a ruling today which heralds crucial changes to the law.

Until now, huge numbers of council tenants have had their status reduced to that of 'tolerated trespassers' after local authorities obtain possession orders against them.

The loss of their secure tenancies means they also lose a whole raft of rights, including the ability to make local authority landlords carry out repairs or to enforce transfer of a tenancy to another occupant - usually a family member - if the tenant dies.

In the Appeal Court, Jan Luba QC, for Mr Hassan and Ms Glastonbury, argued there are 'tens of thousands of occupants living in this 'twilight zone' because they have breached suspended orders for possession, often because of housing benefit delays'.

And Lord Justice Brooke said the 'standard form' for possession orders used for years by county courts up and down the country meant that tenants who have suspended possession orders made against them over arrears are also stripped of their tenancy rights.

The judge, sitting with Lord Justice Dyson and Lord Justice Jacob, today heralded a sea-change in the law when he set out new procedures for the county courts which mean that tenants will retain their rights if they meet conditions to pay off arrears by instalments.

He accepted that each case has to be decided on its own facts and, in cases of repeated rent default, a tougher stance may be justified.

But, under the new procedure laid down by the judge, so long as payments are made on time and the arrears cleared, possession orders will normally cease to have effect and statutory tenancy rights will be preserved.

After delivering his ruling, Lord Justice Brooke said: 'This judgment will be eagerly awaited by those practising in the repossession field up and down the country.'

Mr Hassan, of Longlands House, Barton Hill, Bristol, was left to shoulder the whole rent burden on his flat when his joint secure tenant 'went off to Denmark', said the judge.

By the time, his case came before the county court, rent arrears stood at more than£1,600 and, although the full rent is now covered by housing benefit, Mr Hassan was responsible for a 'heating charge' of£4.77 per week.

Bristol City Council was in January this year given a possession order, suspended on condition that Mr Hassan - who is on benefits - must pay£2.85-a-week towards the arrears.

Ms Glastonbury, a tenant on the 11th floor of Armada House, Dove Street, Bristol, had problems paying her rent after her housing benefit payments were stopped in April last year.

As the mother was on income support, she was entitled to housing benefit, but it was stopped in April last year because she 'failed to provide information required by the council's verification procedures'.

By the time the benefit was reinstated she was more than£800 in rent arrears and that was the position when a suspended possession order was made against her in February this year.

Lord Justice Brooke said that, in both cases, county court judges had 'for very understandable reasons fettered their discretion too narrowly'.

Although he upheld both possession orders, he sent both cases back to the county court for a decision to be made on 'what, if any, terms of postponement of possession are appropriate'.

In his landmark ruling, the judge also urged local authorities that it would be 'consistent with good practice' for landlords to notify tenants of the 'adverse consequences' of their tenancies being terminated at the outset of the repossession process.

The threat of losing their tenancy rights would, added Lord Justice Brooke, be an 'additional spur' to tenants to keep up with their rent arrears instalments.

STRAND NEWS SERVICE

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