ARE we about to witness a rapid increase in the number of tenants threatened with eviction for rent arrears across Scotland?

Court and tribunal evictions had effectively been put into a deep sleep stasis during the pandemic as a necessary public health measure. But things have changed.

Most physical evictions by sheriff officers were banned during the pandemic until last August. Since then, the extended notice period of six months has continued to apply.

This means all landlords have to give six months’ notice before they can raise eviction proceedings for rent arrears.

The six months’ notice period acted as a powerful break on eviction, but that break is coming to an end this month and for most tenants the notice period will return to 28 days.

We also need to consider the backlog of cases that have been steadily building up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Scotland’s social rented sector (council and housing association tenants) there were 4417 notices of proceedings issued to tenants from July 1 to September 30 last year.

Almost all of these cases can now in principle be lodged in the Sheriff Court.

There were a further 4215 notices of proceedings issued to social rented sector tenants from October 1 to December 31 last year.

These cases will generally take until the summertime to find their way into court. The latest level of notices of proceedings is running at less than half the pre-pandemic rate.

This tells us that either tenants have coped well financially during the pandemic or something else might be going on. In other words, is there a backlog with an eviction spike coming?

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As of March 31 last year the total amount of council and housing association rent arrears was near £161 million – that figure rose to almost £175m by December 31 that year.

If one considers the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and further energy household bill hikes, avoiding increased rent arrears will become increasingly challenging for more tenants.

There is further evidence to believe an increase in eviction action is highly likely.

During the six-month period from July to the end of last year there were 878 new eviction actions raised by social landlords – pre-pandemic this figure would have generally been around 6000.

Pre-pandemic, roughly one third of notices of proceedings would end up in court and out of that number around 20% would lead to a physical eviction – around 2300 actual evictions per annum in 2018/19.

There were 101 social rented sector tenants physically evicted in the six months to the end of last year.

This suggests difficult or challenging cases may have been parked or delayed because of the pandemic.

The private rented sector appears to have followed a similar trend.

A Scottish Government analysis of the decisions made by the First-tier Tribunal (Housing and Property Chamber) revealed that between July 8, 2020 and December 23 last year there were a total of 230 eviction orders issued relating to private residential tenancies for rent arrears.

The Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill proposes to end mandatory eviction grounds in the private rented sector.

This will empower tenants but only if they can access advice and representation to enforce their new rights.

Eviction orders in the private rented sector will only be granted where it is reasonable in the circumstances to do so.

Private landlords will also have to follow a pre-action protocol for rent arrears. If they fail to do so the tribunal can take this into account in deciding whether or not to evict.

Tenants in the social rented sector have always had the ability to defend eviction proceedings for rent arrears on the ground that it would not be reasonable to evict.

If we do have a significant backlog of cases that manifest as eviction actions this summer, clearly, we have an opportunity to try and prevent this from happening now.

The Scottish Government has the power to intervene with a further housing grant scheme to avoid evictions as a Covid recovery measure.

We are not talking huge sums of money here when one considers public expenditure elsewhere, often for little or no discernible gain, or audit trail.

Logistically, tenants will need access to high quality free advice and representation.

The free advice sector in Glasgow has had its funding cut by one third by Glasgow City Council.

The capacity to deal with a large-scale surge in eviction cases will not be easy for most parts of Scotland and both Cosla and the Scottish Government must reflect on this and ensure adequate funding for local community-based advice agencies exists.

It would be an unforgivable error of leadership and judgment to simply do nothing but wait and see what happens with Scotland’s eviction numbers this year.