A change in housing benefit back payments- what does this realistically mean?

A large majority of possession matters reach court because the defendant has failed to engage with the relevant Local Authority awarding housing benefits or they have failed to provide information when requested. The reasons behind such failures vary from mental health issues to a simple lack of insight. However, such failures often result in housing benefits being cancelled, large amounts of arrears accruing and ultimately possession being sought by the landlord.

As most advocates and landlords know, when looking to evict a tenant for rent arrears, an argument raised last minute at Court will often be that the particular defendant may be eligible for a back payment in their housing benefit. This previously was an argument with some weight as prior to April 1st 2016, housing benefit claims could be backdated by up to six months. Such a back date would often mean that arrears would be significantly reduced or even cleared in full.

However, as of 1st April 2016, under reg 3 Housing Benefit (Abolition of the Family Premium and date of claim) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 SI 2015/1857 the maximum period that a claim for housing benefit can be backdated for a claimant of working age is one month from the date of the request.

Whilst this initially appears to be a significant change, one has to consider what impact such a change will really have at Court.

When looking to make a possession order, the Judge in the matter will still consider the same legal test. Judges also have great sympathy for tenants who find themselves before the Court for possession proceedings particularly where the defendant is vulnerable.

Where possible, the Court will do all they can to ensure a tenant remains in the property and as only two months of arrears is required for possession proceedings to be brought under ground 8 of Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1988, even a single month of back payment may affect the Court’s decision when ordering possession.

Whilst helpful, in real terms, this change is likely to have little impact on the outcome of possession hearings. The restriction on back dated housing benefits will reduce the strength of the defendant’s argument but is unlikely to change the Judge’s decision.