Joint tenancies: removal of a tenant

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 17th June 2020.

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Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:45 pm, 17th June 2020

It absolutely cannot do that, and we must consider the politics of priorities in these circumstances. I do not pick these amendments out of the air, much as I love to pore over tenancy law. They are usually brought to me by people who have been in these specific circumstances. It is an incredibly pernicious thing, and it can be seen when people are left with problems, less so with damage to the property. I do not believe anybody ever gets their deposit back; that is a mythical thing that never actually occurs in real life. I have certainly never got any deposit back. The rent arrears issue is terrible and pernicious; there is no doubt about that. Victims are telling us that they face the problem of the risk of homelessness. Somebody can end their tenancy just like that. Our constant objective in these clauses is to remove the perpetrator from the situation and leave the victim safer at home.

There are all sorts of things that I would offer if somebody came to me and said, “Well, I’ve got rent arrears based on that.” Birmingham City Council has not had a good write-up in this Committee, but one brilliant thing it does is have discretionary housing payments specifically for local allowances for issues such as rent arrears built up in domestic abuse cases. I would seek to access that sort of support in those circumstances. In fact, with regard to tenancies, lots of local councils have different rules about the kind of things that they can do as landlords—obviously, they are the largest landlords in the country—in cases of domestic violence. Currently, however, the law does not allow for the thing that victims are telling me would help them.

To go back to complicated tenancy law, for those who are unmarried but have children—the law is very detailed in the gradients that are covered—the Children Act 1989 provides an opportunity for the tenancy to be transferred for the benefit of children, but again that necessitates bringing expensive and contentious court proceedings that polarise parties who might have been able to reach agreement over many aspects of their children’s care without the emotional impact of a litigation process. When we talk about the family courts, especially some of the harrowing cases, it is important to remember that 90% of people breaking up from each other, including a high proportion of people even in domestic abuse situations, sever their lives and those of their children amicably without the need for the courts. I want to try to avoid needless litigation, especially for victims.

The transfer in such cases is further complicated by the fact that it is only for the benefit of the children, so if the children are about to turn 18, the remedy may not help. It may be possible to sever the tenancy, but if the child is crashing towards a certain age, people may be cut off.

Married or unmarried victims with or without children can apply under the Family Law Act 1996, but for married couples, the court will insist on divorce proceedings having been commenced and will often divert them down the route of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Where the parties are unmarried, the route of the 1996 Act will still necessitate lengthy court proceedings, often with two or three hearings at a cost in court time in excess of £10,000 and in legal aid of a similar amount for either party represented.

In contrast to those complex and uncertain processes, the new clause provides a straightforward mechanism for the victim of abuse, where they have a joint tenancy from a social landlord, to seek the transfer of the tenancy from joint names to their sole name and to prevent the abuser from ending the tenancy in the meantime. It sets out that where there has been a conviction for a domestic abuse-related offence, the court must make an order to transfer the joint tenancy to the victim’s sole name.

Understandably, there have been quite a few conversations about unintended consequences, which happen with pretty much all laws. No matter which rosette hon. Members wear, no law that has ever been passed has helped everybody universally and has been perfect for everybody. That is the reality, which is perhaps not expressed very well by the Punch and Judy politics of this place.

In the new clauses that we have tabled, we have sought to be clear that the level of the evidence base, such as conviction, needed to take something away from somebody must be high. In the issue of presumption that my hon. Friend the Member for Hove was talking about earlier, that was based on orders and convictions. When we are talking about taking something away, such as a tenancy, I recognise that that is a big liberty, even if someone is a perpetrator, because they might have had a terrible life—lots of them will have had a terrible life.

A domestic abuse protection notice or a conviction seems like a reasonable threshold, rather than just an allegation, for doing something such as taking someone’s tenancy away. Where a domestic abuse protection notice or a protection order has been served, there is a presumption that the court will make an order transferring the tenancy to the victim’s sole name, which the other joint tenant can seek to oppose by showing exceptional circumstances. In both cases, this is subject to the court being satisfied that the tenancy is affordable for the applicant. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Darlington, in this instance the court would assess the affordability of the tenancy rather than the burden of that tenancy, because we do not want to burden people needlessly.