Joint tenancies: removal of a tenant

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 17th June 2020.

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Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:30 pm, 17th June 2020

It is weird at the end stages, because we are now jumping around. We are now going to talk about joint tenancies, which is nothing like any of the stuff we have been talking about for the past few hours. I will speak to new clause 42 on joint tenancies and new clauses 43 and 44, which relate to local connection restrictions on survivors escaping domestic abuse.

The impact of joint tenancies on survivors of domestic abuse is not an issue that has been widely discussed in Parliament in recent years, but it should be. There has been a lot of stuff about tenancies, to be fair, but it has not necessarily been about joint tenancies. The current tenancy law leaves survivors particularly vulnerable to homelessness and further abuse. Where there is a joint tenancy between the abuser and the victim, either can give notice to end the tenancy and it then takes effect for all joint tenants.

I am sure I do not need to spell out what impact that has in abusive, coercive and controlling relationships. The current law means that abusers can unilaterally terminate the joint tenancy, ending the victim’s right to remain in the property, and putting her at significant risk of homelessness and harm. Currently, the only option in the short term is for the victim to seek an injunction preventing the abuser from serving notice on the tenancy. That is usually a time-limited and temporary remedy.

It is completely ineffective if the abuser decides to breach the order, as the remedy for the breach would not bind the landlord or resurrect the tenancy, although once the Bill is passed maybe they would become a criminal, depending on which order it was. We are now talking about complicated housing law. In the case of a sole tenancy in the abuser’s name, it does nothing to afford tenancy rights to the victim, and of course an injunction will probably only be obtained if she has access to legal advice in the first place. It may be possible for the victim to end a joint tenancy and immediately be granted a new sole tenancy by the landlord, if the landlord is sympathetic and prepared to do so. But that is wholly at the landlord’s whim, and the landlord is under no obligation. There are some positive examples of landlords improving their responses to tenants experiencing domestic abuse, as Committee members will know all too well from their own casework. It is not that universal to have really great landlords.

A court order is required to transfer tenancy rights from either the abuser’s sole tenancy or a joint tenancy to the victim’s sole tenancy. There are currently three mechanisms by which that can be done, but they relate only to particular circumstances, and the process is uncertain and complex. All of that requires survivors to have access to legal advice and representation. An application to transfer the tenancy must be made to the family court. The law is complicated in the sense that different routes and remedies are available, depending on marital status and the existence of children. If the parties are married, they can apply under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 only if they are in divorce proceedings. Maybe that is literally about to change as we speak; the law normally moves slowly and I feel like it is racing away with me. It can take over a year to obtain the transfer, which will not take effect until a decree absolute has been granted, although that may now be quicker. That route forces parties whose only matrimonial asset might be the tenancy to waste court time and public funds to obtain a transfer. The victim will be insecure while the proceedings are ongoing and the parties will become further polarised. That is an inevitable consequence of family litigation, and has an impact on arrangements they may need to make over children.