No matter what industry or sector you are working in, the current COVID-19 situation brings constant change and challenge to every day.

Brady Solicitors’ Head of Litigation, Jeremy Weaver, has been making sense of some of the early themes coming from the courts that impact on the property management sector.

Some of the biggest upheaval has centred around large organisations who do not have a history of remote working, or where face to face connection is a crucial aspect of their being. The courts system is under unprecedented pressure from a variety of angles. With staff in self-isolation or ill, rules that centre around deadlines, tasks being completed within an agreed time frame and hearings are moving suddenly to paper or video-based formats.

Possession Hearings
The Government had announced that there would be a moratorium on possession claims for rent for both individuals and companies in commercial rented properties and this was included in the new Coronavirus Act. This was extended in the unexpected new Practice Direction 51Z that applies to all possession claims including those based on service charge arrears.

It is important to note that our understanding at this stage is that it is simply a 90 day stay or delay. We have also had suggestion that the courts will prioritise re-listing these cases in the July and August hearing lists.

Deadlines
As you may expect, where extensions or applications are based on delays caused by the impact of COVID-19 this is expected to be dealt with sensibly and with no cost implications.

We await further Practice Directions that may relate to general time limits under the Civil Procedure Rules, eg; time to respond to defences.

The reality is this will likely mean that service charge funds will slow considerably for Managing Agents and current disputes are likely to be lengthened.

In terms of cases already instructed on and being litigated the message from the Judiciary is that momentum should not be lost. Parties should continue to litigate cases to their trial date unless or until the Court notifies them that the hearing will not go ahead. Judges wish cases to continue to settle and be progressed by the profession to limit the backlog that will inevitably build up later in the year.

Practical Changes
Nottingham Civil Court has been helpful in setting out its plans. The guidance issued applies to Nottingham and associated courts. It appears that whilst on a national basis the guidance given is that all hearings will now be conducted remotely, the manner of implementation has been left to the local Judiciary in each area. Whilst we work nationwide and there are likely to be regional differences, we expect that other courts may echo this approach. However, local guidance should be sought.

In summary

  • Unless urgent no court hearings will take place. In relation to other hearings, for the immediate future everything will be done by telephone. The Judges will be working from home.
  • Where hearings cannot be accommodated by telephone they will be adjourned. Trials cannot currently take place. The Court will adjourn all such hearings into future identified lists which are likely to commence no earlier than July or August.
  • We are likely to see, if we work to this time scale, significant pressure on the courts in July and August
  • Adjournments are being done automatically by the courts
  • Case Summaries are being recommended and the provision of electronic bundles to Judges direct by email will be welcome

Lease Extensions
The Association of Lease Enfranchisement Practitioners (ALEP) has agreed a welcome protocol for the Service of Initial Notices and Counter-Notices. This is for guidance for ALEP members, such as Brady Solicitors, to be more flexible in terms of timing and method for key notices.

Next steps
The courts are clearly working hard with a real desire to keep things moving, which should be recognised. We are seeing lengthening of deadlines and sensible approaches to hearings. It would be helpful to see a nationwide approach but appreciate this can be challenging.

It is still unclear as to the full impact for Property Managers. However, it is likely to put further pressure on already stretched service charge revenues. We are working closely with Brady Solicitors’ clients to ensure expectations are under review and communications are clear.

Brady Solicitors are fully prepared to assist you through these challenging times and the position is changing daily. For further information please get in touch with the property management experts at Brady Solicitors using the contact details above.