This note has been updated as at 22 May 2020.
There are relatively few options open to rural landlords for dealing with tenants of residential and commercial property who are struggling to pay their rent.
The government’s emergency legislation, passed on 25 March, provides that from 26 March to 30 September, notice periods to terminate certain residential tenancies are extended to three months. This applies to assured and assured shorthold tenancies, as well as Rent Act 1977 protected and statutory tenancies. The three-month period can be extended by further legislation to a maximum of six months. There are no changes to notice periods for common law tenancies or Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976 tenancies. In addition, from 27 March, the government has confirmed that all housing possession action currently in the courts (or about to enter the court system) will be suspended for 90 days. Again, the period can be extended. Importantly, this suspension affects all tenancies and licences of dwellings.
A landlord’s options are likely to be limited to the following:
1. Rent deposits: Where a tenant has paid a deposit at the start of the tenancy, the landlord might be able to draw on this to cover the unpaid rent, if the terms of the agreement allow for this. Exactly how this is handled will depend on the terms, and where the deposit is protected by a tenancy deposit scheme, the rules of the scheme could mean this is not a straightforward option. In addition, any communication with the tenant will need to preserve the landlord’s rights and ensure the tenant is obliged to top up the deposit within a certain time.
2. Guarantors: Some tenancies contain guarantee provisions stating that the guarantor is liable for the rent if the tenant does not pay. If this is the case, the landlord could pursue a guarantor, although certain prior notices may need to be served.
3. Rent concessions: Landlords may offer temporary arrangements, such as reduced payments, deferment of payments or rent ‘holidays’ (full rent-free periods). An arrangement should be recorded in a carefully worded letter to protect the landlord’s rights, and to avoid accidentally releasing any guarantor from its liabilities.
4. Bankruptcy: For non-payment of rent or other charges, a landlord may be able to serve a statutory demand requiring payment in 21 days, failing which an individual tenant could be made bankrupt. This is unlikely to be a useful method to recover the unpaid rent if the tenant is genuinely struggling financially, and there would be reputational risk in the current climate. However, landlords might be aware of tenants who are well able to pay rent and could be taking advantage of the situation. Bankruptcy proceedings are still possible, albeit with likely delays and potential online hearings, so this option remains open for those few tenants who are wilfully withholding rent.
Nevertheless, a collaborative approach is likely to be preferable on the whole, to maintain good public relations and foster tenant loyalty.
The situation is slightly different in relation to any commercial units on an estate, because forfeiture, seizing goods and insolvency proceedings for companies have all been restricted.
Under the emergency legislation, no forfeiture or re-entry clause in a business lease may be enforced, for non-payment of rent, between 26 March and 30 June 2020 (the period may be extended by further legislation). Existing possession orders may be postponed. Any right of re-entry will not be lost during this period, unless the landlord expressly states as much in writing – so any concession letter to the tenant should take care on the point. Otherwise, the rights and obligations in any given lease generally remain in force (subject to any government requirements, such as for certain retail premises to close).
The seizure of goods to pay the debt (known as Commercial Rent Arrears Recovery) is restricted by legislation which came into force on 25 April. The legislation states that 90 days’ rent must be due and unpaid (increased from seven days’ rent in normal times). More likely to discourage landlords, though, are the practical difficulties of seizing goods and selling them at public auction (as CRAR requires) during lockdown.
In addition, the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill (the Bill) which was published on 20 May will, when in force, invalidate any statutory demand served between 1 March and 30 June, or later if the Bill is delayed through Parliament. During the same period, winding up petitions (the equivalent of bankruptcy for companies) can only be presented if the landlord can prove reasonable grounds for believing that the business has not been affected financially by coronavirus, or that the relevant facts would have been the same even without coronavirus. The Bill also introduces the ability for companies to apply for an extendable statutory moratorium of 20 business days, which would prevent a landlord taking any legal action against them – including debt claims and potentially, in some cases, drawing on a rent deposit (depending on the terms of the deposit).
The realistic options for a landlord are therefore rent deposits (subject to checking their terms and acting swiftly before the Bill becomes law), pursuing guarantors or other third parties like sub-tenants and previous tenants, and rent concessions.
Some estates may feel they can take a more robust approach with commercial tenants, especially where there is a strong sense that the tenant is in fact capable of paying the rent and the reputational risk is lower. However, taking aggressive action may lead to empty properties, reducing income and leaving the landlord with the burden (both practically and financially) of running premises. A collaborative approach with valued tenants in genuine difficulty is likely to bring opportunities to strike constructive deals, such as securing a lease extension in return for a rent concession, and may strengthen the landlord/tenant relationship to your mutual benefit in the long term.
A link to our COVID-19 web page is here where you can find our advice notes that are updated on a daily basis.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, May 2020