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You are taken to court for rent arrears

About being taken to court for rent arrears

If you have rent arrears, your landlord may try and evict you. This is called seeking possession. To do this, in most cases they will need to follow a procedure which involves getting a court order. They can't make you leave your home without going to court first. If they do make you leave without taking you to court first, this is against the law.

In some cases, even though they take you to court to evict you, they may agree to let you stay in the property as long as you agree to pay back the money you owe and you don't fall behind with your rent again.

The procedure your landlord must follow if they want to evict you for rent arrears is:

  • a pre-action protocol. These are steps some landlords must take before starting court action. It only applies to social housing landlords, such as local authorities and housing associations, not to private landlords
  • send you a warning, called a notice of seeking possession or a notice to quit
  • send you court papers
  • get a court order called a possession order
  • get a warrant of possession
  • get a notice of eviction sent to you by the bailiffs.

If you're a private tenant with an assured shorthold tenancy, your landlord may be able to use a different, slightly quicker procedure than the one described on this page.

For more information about assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears, see Assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears.

It’s important to know what type of tenancy you have so that you can work out exactly what steps your landlord has to take before evicting you.

If you’re not sure what type of tenancy you have, see Renting from a private landlord and Renting from a social housing landlord.

You can also go to your local Citizens Advice Bureau for advice about the type of tenancy you have. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those which give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

Even if your landlord has already started action to evict you, it’s not too late to try and come to an agreement to pay back what you owe.

For more information about coming to an agreement to pay off your rent arrears, see Paying off your rent arrears.

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Special rules for social housing landlords

Social housing landlords have to follow special rules called a rent arrears pre-action protocol. This means there are certain steps they need to follow before they can take you to court for rent arrears. Social housing landlords include local authorities and housing associations.

A social housing landlord can't start court action for rent arrears unless they’ve:

  • tried to come to an agreement with you to pay off what you owe. This must be an amount you can afford to pay, based on how much money you have coming into your household and how much you need to spend
  • offered to help you to claim Housing Benefit
  • advised you to get help from a Citizens Advice Bureau or debt advice agency.

If you’re the tenant of a social housing landlord, they mustn’t start court action to evict you if you’ve made a claim for Housing Benefit and can show that:

  • you’ve given your local authority all the evidence they need to process your claim, and
  • there’s a good chance that you’ll qualify for Housing Benefit, and
  • you’ve paid other sums of money that aren’t covered by Housing Benefit, for example, water charges which are included in your rent.

If you have a social housing landlord, both you and your landlord should consider an alternative way of sorting out your rent problems, rather than going to court. This is called alternative dispute resolution or ADR. For more information about ADR, go to the Advice Services Alliance website at www.asauk.org.uk.

If your social housing landlord hasn’t followed the pre-action protocol properly, you should make sure the judge knows this if you are taken to court. The judge will take this into account when they decide what court order to make.

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Notice to leave your home

Most tenants are entitled to a written notice to leave a property even if your landlord did not give you a written agreement to live there in the first place.

This could either be a notice to quit or a notice seeking possession, depending on the type of tenancy you have. The main exception to this is if you are an excluded occupier. You will be an excluded occupier if you share living accommodation such as a kitchen or bathroom with your landlord. In this case, your landlord only has to verbally ask you to leave.

Getting a notice to quit or notice seeking possession doesn’t always mean you will have to leave your home. Your landlord still has to get a court order before they can evict you and they can’t apply for a court order until the notice period has run out. The length of the notice period depends on the type of tenancy you have. Also, with some types of tenancy, such as an assured shorthold tenancy, it can be easier for the landlord to evict you.

For more information about assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears, see Assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears.

If you’re not sure what type of tenancy you have, see Renting from a private landlord and Renting from a social housing landlord.

You can also go to your local Citizens Advice Bureau for advice about the type of tenancy you have and how long the notice period needs to be. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those which give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

Paying back what you owe

You may be able to pay off all the arrears before the notice period runs out. If you can do this, it will stop court action going any further and you won’t have to leave your home.

However in some cases, for example, if you have an assured-shorthold tenancy, paying off your arrears may not prevent you from being evicted.

For more information about assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears, see Assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears.

Even if you can’t pay all the arrears off before the notice period runs out, you may be able to come to an agreement with your landlord to pay back the money over a longer period of time. This would allow you to stay in the property and may mean you can avoid going to court. This would avoid you having to pay court costs. However, your landlord could still take you to court even if you come to an agreement. In this case, the judge is likely to say that you can stay in your home as long as you stick to the agreement.

For more about coming to an agreement with your landlord, see Paying off your rent arrears.

Contact your landlord straight away and let them know your situation. Even if you have no money to pay back the arrears, if you can, you should carry on paying your rent.

If there are reasons why you can’t pay your rent or the arrears, put these in writing to your landlord and keep a copy of your letter or email. For example, you may be waiting for a Housing Benefit claim to be dealt with.

If you have a social housing landlord, there are special rules they have to follow when you’re in rent arrears, which include helping you sort out Housing Benefit problems.

You should also inform the local authority Housing Benefit office about your position.

Your landlord refuses rent payments

If your landlord refuses to accept rent payments after they’ve served you with a notice to quit or notice seeking possession, you should put the money aside. This is because you have a legal duty to pay rent during the notice period. You also have a legal duty to pay the landlord when the notice period runs out, until you are actually evicted. This payment is not actually called rent but mesne profits. If you can save the money, put it into a separate account. This will help you if your case does go to court. You can use the money to show that you’re willing and able to pay off the arrears and that it’s not reasonable for the court to evict you.

Check the notice is correct

You should check that the notice to quit or notice seeking possession meets the right legal requirements. If it doesn’t, this could stop or delay your landlord from taking further action.

You should get advice from an expert housing adviser about this. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau should be able to help, or put you in touch with someone who can. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those who can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

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Before you go to court

If you don’t pay off the arrears or come to an agreement with your landlord within the notice period, they will apply for a court order.

The court papers

If you don’t pay off the arrears or come to an agreement with your landlord within the notice period, they will apply for a court order.

You will be sent papers by the court, showing your landlord's case against you. These papers are called a claim form and particulars of claim. You will also get papers for you to fill in and return to the court. These are called the defence form.

If there is to be a court hearing, you will also be given the time and place of the hearing.

However, if you're an assured-shorthold tenant, you may not get the chance to go to court.

For more information about assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears, see Assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears.

You should check the claim form and particulars of claim carefully to make sure everything the landlord has said about you is correct. For example, the address where you live and the money you owe must be correct. If any of the details aren't correct, make sure the court knows about them. You can either do this in the defence form or at the hearing.

You should try and fill in the defence form and send it back to the court by the deadline, which is usually 14 days. If you don’t return the defence form in time, you’ll still have the right to go to court and defend your case. However, it is best to send the defence form back in time, otherwise you might have to pay extra court costs.

Here are some examples of things you might be able to say on the defence form:

  • you don't think you owe the money your landlord has said you do. For example, you might think someone else is responsible for the money owed, or your landlord hasn’t worked out the amount you owe correctly
  • you are owed Housing Benefit which would pay off all or some of the arrears
  • the reasons why the arrears have built up. For example, you may have lost your job, or been too ill to work. The court can take these reasons into account when deciding whether to evict you or let you stay in the property. If your circumstances have changed and you can start making payments again, the court may also take this into account
  • you would suffer exceptional hardship if you had to leave the property straight away. An example of exceptional hardship is where you're going to be homeless and won’t get rehoused by your local authority. The court may be able to delay your eviction to give you more time to find somewhere else to live
  • you’re the tenant of a social housing landlord and they haven't followed the proper procedures
  • you want to make a counterclaim for repairs your landlord should have carried out. You should get advice before doing this.

You can get help to check what's in the court papers and to fill in the defence form from your local Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those who can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

For more information on how to check whether the amount the court papers say you owe is correct, see Things to check when you have rent arrears.

Keep paying your rent

If you can, keep paying your rent as normal during this period and start making payments towards the arrears. Pay off the amount of money that you can afford. If your landlord won’t accept these payments, put the money aside.

If you need more time

If you need more time to prepare for the court hearing, you can ask for an adjournment. This means the court hearing will be postponed to give you more time. To ask for an adjournment, contact your landlord or their solicitors. If they agree, you or the landlord should then write to the court saying you have both agreed to an adjournment. The court will normally adjourn the case if you and the landlord have both agreed.

If your landlord doesn’t agree to an adjournment, or it isn’t possible to contact your landlord, turn up at court on the date of the hearing and ask for an adjournment at the hearing itself.

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The court hearing

It's very important that you go to the court hearing. This is so that you can find out what the judge orders and get a chance to affect the outcome.

Try and get help and advice before you go to court. If you haven’t got help before the day of the hearing, there may be a court desk where you can get help or get advice before the hearing if you need it.

You should be able to get free advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau or other advice agency. If you are entitled to legal aid, you can get advice from Civil Legal Advice (CLA). To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those who can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB. To find out if you can get free help from CLA, call the CLA helpline on 0845 345 4345.

If you are an assured-shorthold tenant, you may not get the chance to go to court.

For more information about assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears, see Assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears.

If you’re disabled

If you’re disabled, check whether suitable facilities are available at the court. You can find out access details of the court on the Ministry of Justice website at: www.justice.gov.uk. If you’ve got a disability which makes going to court or communicating difficult, you can contact the Disability Helpline on 0800 358 3506. A text phone service for deaf or hard of hearing people is also available on 0191 478 1476.

Getting evidence together

Before the date of the hearing, you should get together all the evidence you’ll need to make your case. For example, you may need to take proof of your financial circumstances like your wage slips and your bank statements. If you are owed money, for example if you are owed Housing Benefit or another benefit, you should try and get written confirmation of this that you can show to the judge.

If you’ve already made payments towards the arrears, the court will need to see evidence, for example, a receipt. If your landlord has refused to accept these payments, but you’ve put the money aside, take proof of this money to show the court.

You should bring a copy of your financial statement or budget sheet. This is a statement showing how much money you have coming into your household, how much you spend and how much you have left over to pay the arrears. If you sent a financial statement or budget sheet back with the defence form but your circumstances have changed since then, you should do a new one and bring this with you.

For more information about drawing up a financial statement or budget sheet, see How to work out your budget.

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What decisions can the judge make

At the court hearing, the judge will listen to both sides of the story and look at the evidence brought to court. The hearing will be in private and it generally won’t last very long.

At the end of the hearing, the judge will make a decision called an order. The judge will tell both you and the landlord what that decision is and the court will send a copy of the court order to both of you. This is usually within a few days of the hearing. However, you should make your own note of the judge’s decision as there’s sometimes a delay in the court posting the order out.

There are several types of decision a judge can make. These are to:

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Postponed possession orders

If the judge makes a postponed possession order, it means you can carry on living in your home as long as you keep to certain conditions. These will usually include paying the rent and an agreed amount off the arrears.

If you don't keep to the conditions, the landlord can ask the court for permission to evict you. They will have to go through another procedure first though. This involves applying to the court for a possession date and then, once they've got this, applying for a warrant of possession.

For more information about what your landlord needs to do to evict you if they have a postponed possession order, see Eviction for rent arrears.

It may be possible to:

  • appeal against a postponed possession order
  • ask the court to set the order aside
  • ask the court to adjourn the claim.

If your circumstances change and you can't keep to the conditions of the order, you may be able to get the court to change (vary) the conditions.

You may need to get expert help if your landlord is taking you to court because of rent arrears. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau should be able to help, or put you in touch with someone who can. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those who can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

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Suspended possession orders

A suspended possession order is similar to a postponed possession order. It gives you the right to stay in your home as long as you stick to an agreement to keep up the rent payments and pay off the arrears.

If you don't stick to the agreement, your landlord can apply to the court for a warrant of possession to evict you. However, unlike a postponed possession order, you won't be told in advance if they do this.

Once your landlord gets the warrant of possession, you can be forced to leave your home.

For more information about what happens when your landlord gets a warrant of possession, see Eviction for rent arrears.

If your landlord has asked the court to give them a suspended possession order, it may be possible to:

  • ask for the order to be adjourned
  • ask for the order to be set aside
  • appeal against the order
  • ask for the conditions of the order to be changed at a later date if your circumstances change.

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Outright possession orders

If the court grants your landlord an outright possession order, this will say that you have to leave the property by a certain date. Your landlord is likely to be granted an outright possession order if you’re unable to persuade the judge that you can keep up your rent payments and pay off the arrears.

If you can persuade the judge that you’re able to keep up your rent payments and pay off the arrears, you may be able to get the outright order changed to a postponed or suspended possession.

You may need to get expert help if your landlord is taking you to court because of rent arrears. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau should be able to help, or put you in touch with someone who can. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those who can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

If you have an assured shorthold tenancy, you may not have had the chance to go to court and speak to a judge.

For more information about rent arrears if you're an assured shorthold tenant, see Assured shorthold tenancies and rent arrears.

If you're not sure what kind of tenancy you have, see Renting from a private landlord, or Renting from a social housing landlord.

You can also get advice about your tenancy from your local Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those who can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

If your landlord gets an outright possession order, you don’t have to leave the property by the date on the order, your landlord will need to get a warrant of possession first.

For more information about what happens when your landlord gets a warrant of possession, see Eviction for rent arrears.

Sometimes it’s possible to persuade your landlord not to apply for the warrant of possession. For example, your financial circumstances may change or your Housing Benefit claim may come through and pay off all the arrears.

For more information about how to deal with your landlord when you have rent arrears, see Paying off your rent arrears.

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Money judgments

When your landlord asks the court to give them a possession order on your home, they may also ask for a money judgment. This is an ordinary county court judgment (CCJ). It means you will have to pay the landlord back the money you owe them, even if you've left the property.

If your landlord has been granted a suspended or postponed possession order, the money judgment will usually be postponed or suspended as well. This means that you can continue to live at the property as long as you keep up with your rent payments and pay back what you owe at the rate set out in the possession order.

If you don't keep to the conditions of the possession order and the landlord applies to evict you, you will still have to pay back the rent you owe, even once you've left the property.

If your landlord is granted a CCJ, they can take further legal action against you. This could be, for example, getting another court order which allows them to have money deducted from your wages to pay off the debt you owe them. In some circumstances, they can send bailiffs round to take your possessions away.

If your landlord gets a CCJ against you, it will affect you credit rating. You may have difficulty getting credit and borrowing money in the future.

For more information about how a CCJ affects your credit rating and what you can do about this, see How County Court Judgments affect your credit rating [Adobe Acrobat Document 41 KB].

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Taking your goods away for rent arrears

A landlord can sometimes take your goods away if you have rent arrears. This procedure is known as levying distress, or distraint. The goods will be sold and the money used to pay your rent arrears. In some cases, if you are a council tenant, your landlord has the right to do this without needing a court order. Other landlords have to get a court order before they can take your goods. Usually, bailiffs will be used to take your goods but in some cases, the landlord can take your goods themselves.

It's very unusual for a landlord to use distress when you have rent arrears because they have to follow very complicated rules. For example, there are complicated rules about how they can get into your property to take the goods, and what goods they can and can’t take. If they don’t follow the rules properly, you could take legal action against your landlord.

For more information about bailiffs, see Bailiffs.

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Further help

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