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You are taken to court for rent arrears

This advice applies to England

About being taken to court for rent arrears

If you have an assured shorthold tenancy

Your landlord might give you a section 8 notice or section 21 notice - this means they’ll have to follow certain rules to evict you for rent arrears.

Check what to do if you get a section 8 notice.

Check what to do if you get a section 21 notice

If you’re not sure what type of tenancy you have:

If you have rent arrears, your landlord may try and evict you. This is called seeking possession. To do this, in most cases they will need to follow a procedure which involves getting a court order. They can't make you leave your home without going to court first. If they do make you leave without taking you to court first, this is against the law.

In some cases, even though they take you to court to evict you, they may agree to let you stay in the property as long as you agree to pay back the money you owe and you don't fall behind with your rent again.

There are a number of stages involved before a tenant can be evicted for rent arrears. They are:

  • if your landlord is a social housing landlord, such as a local authority or a housing association, they have to follow a rent arrears pre-action protocol. This tells your landlord what they should do before they start court action - find out more about the pre-action protocol on GOV.UK
  • your landlord must give you notice to leave your home, this is called a notice of seeking possession or a notice to quit
  • if you haven't left by the time the notice has run out, your landlord can apply to court for a court order and you will receive court papers
  • at court your landlord can ask the judge for an order called a possession order
  • if the possession order requires you to leave your home and you haven't left by the date on the order, your landlord can ask the court for a warrant of possession
  • you would then get a notice of eviction sent to you by the bailiffs saying when the eviction will take place.

Even if your landlord has already started action to evict you, you can still try and come to an agreement to pay back what you owe. This might stop them evicting you.

For more information about coming to an agreement to pay off your rent arrears, see Paying off your rent arrears.

Notice to leave your home

Most tenants are entitled to a written notice to leave a property even if your landlord did not give you a written agreement to live there in the first place.

This could either be a notice to quit or a notice seeking possession, depending on the type of tenancy you have.

If you’re an ‘excluded occupier’, you might not be entitled to a written notice - it will depend on what you agreed with your landlord. You’ll be an excluded occupier if you share living space with your landlord - for example, a kitchen or bathroom. Even if your landlord gives you a written notice, they can evict you without a court order.

Getting a notice to quit or notice seeking possession doesn’t always mean you will have to leave your home. Your landlord still has to get a court order before they can evict you and they can’t apply for a court order until the notice period has run out. The length of the notice period depends on the type of tenancy you have.

Check your tenancy type if you rent from a private landlord.

Check your tenancy type if you rent from a social housing landlord.

Talk to an adviser if your landlord gives you notice to leave your home.

Paying back what you owe

You may be able to pay off all the arrears before the notice period runs out. If you can do this, it might stop court action going any further and you won’t have to leave your home.

If you have an assured shorthold tenancy, paying off your arrears might not stop you from being evicted. You should check how to deal with rent arrears if you have an assured shorthold tenancy.

Even if you can’t pay all the arrears off before the notice period runs out, you may be able to come to an agreement with your landlord to pay back the money over a longer period of time. If your landlord agrees, you could stay in the property and avoid going to court. This would avoid you having to pay court costs. However, your landlord could still take you to court even if you come to an agreement. In this case, the judge is likely to say that you can stay in your home as long as you stick to the agreement.

For more about coming to an agreement with your landlord, see Paying off your rent arrears.

Contact your landlord straight away and let them know your situation. Even if you have no money to pay back the arrears, if you can, you should carry on paying your rent.

If there are reasons why you can’t pay your rent or the arrears, put these in writing to your landlord and keep a copy of your letter or email. For example, you may be waiting for a Universal Credit claim to be dealt with.

If you have a social housing landlord, there are special rules they have to follow when you’re in rent arrears. For example, if you get benefits to pay your rent, they should help you sort out any problems with them.

Talk to an adviser if you need help with your benefits.

Your landlord refuses rent payments

If your landlord refuses to accept rent payments after they’ve served you with a notice to quit or notice seeking possession, you should put the money aside. This is because you have a legal duty to pay rent during the notice period. You also have a legal duty to pay the landlord when the notice period runs out, until you are actually evicted. If you can save the money, put it into a separate account. This will help you if your case does go to court. You can use the money to show that you’re willing and able to pay off the arrears and that it’s not reasonable for the court to evict you.

Check the notice is correct

You should check that the notice to quit or notice seeking possession meets the right legal requirements. For example, it might need to contain certain information. If the notice isn't correct, this could stop or delay your landlord from taking further action.

Talk to an adviser if you need help to check if your notice is correct.

Before you go to court

If you don’t pay off the arrears or come to an agreement with your landlord within the notice period, they will apply for a court order.

Coronavirus - if your landlord goes to court to evict you

Your landlord has to follow coronavirus guidelines and rules if they want to evict you – check if your landlord has followed the rules.

You should talk to an adviser as soon as possible if:

  • you get letters or paperwork from the court
  • bailiffs try to evict you

If your landlord started court action against you before 3 August 2020, they have to send you a letter before they can continue with their court claim. This letter is called a ‘reactivation notice’ – you can check what to do if you get a reactivation notice

If your landlord started the claim after 3 August 2020, talk to an adviser.

The court papers

If you don’t pay off the arrears or come to an agreement with your landlord within the notice period, they will apply for a court order.

You will be sent papers by the court, showing your landlord's case against you. These papers are called a claim form and particulars of claim. You will also get papers for you to fill in and return to the court. These are called the defence form.

If you're an assured-shorthold tenant, there might not be a hearing if you don't return the defence form.

You should check the court papers carefully to make sure everything the landlord has said about you is correct. For example, check the address where you live and the amount of money you owe, if it's included. If any of the details aren't correct, make sure the court knows about them. You can either do this in the defence form or at the hearing, if there is one.

You can use the defence form that came with the court papers to give your reasons for challenging your eviction.

If you find it difficult to use the defence form, write what you want to say on a piece of paper instead. Write your case number on the piece of paper – you can find your case number on the claim form.

You should try and fill in the defence form and send it back to the court by the deadline, which is usually 14 days. If you don’t return the defence form in time, you’ll still have the right to go to court and defend your case. However, it is best to send the defence form back in time, otherwise you might have to pay extra court costs.

Here are some examples of things you might be able to say on the defence form:

  • you don't think you owe the money your landlord has said you do. For example, you might think someone else is responsible for the money owed, or your landlord hasn’t worked out the amount you owe correctly
  • you are owed Universal Credit or Housing Benefit which would pay off all or some of the arrears
  • the reasons why the arrears have built up. For example, you may have lost your job, or been too ill to work. The court might take these reasons into account when deciding whether to evict you or let you stay in the property. If your circumstances have changed and you can start making payments again, the court may also take this into account
  • you would suffer exceptional hardship if you had to leave the property straight away. An example of exceptional hardship is where you're going to be homeless and won’t get rehoused by your local authority. The court may be able to delay your eviction to give you more time to find somewhere else to live
  • you rent from a social housing landlord and they haven't followed the pre-action protocol
  • you want to take action against your landlord, for example because they didn’t make repairs - talk to an adviser before you do this

If you can, talk to an adviser before you send your defence to the court.

Keep paying your rent

If you can, keep paying your rent as normal during this period and start making payments towards the arrears. Pay off the amount of money that you can afford. If your landlord won’t accept these payments, put the money aside.

Check what happens after you send your defence

You’ll usually get a ‘notice of review’. This will tell you the date the court will look at the case for the first time - this is called the ‘review date’. 

If you're an assured shorthold tenant, you might not have a hearing. If you do have a hearing, you'll get a notice of review.

The court will send you a notice of review either:

  • at the same time as the claim form
  • after it gets your defence

Your landlord should send you a copy of all the documents the court will look at – this is called the ‘bundle’. If you haven’t got the bundle 2 weeks before the review date, tell the court – you can find the contact details of the court on GOV.UK.

You can talk to a free legal adviser on the review date – they’re called the ‘duty adviser’. Before the review date, read the letters from the court and make sure you know how to talk to the duty adviser on the review date.

Check what happens on the review date

You don’t need to go to court – but you should make sure you can talk on the phone.

It’s worth talking to the duty adviser even if you’ve already got advice. They can talk to your landlord for you. They might be able to get your landlord to agree to pause or stop the eviction.

If you and your landlord can’t agree, the court will look at all the documents. If there’s a problem with your landlord’s documents, the court might pause or stop the eviction.

If there’s no problem with the documents, the court will decide when to have a court hearing – this is called the ‘possession hearing’. The possession hearing will be at least 4 weeks after the review date.

If you need more time

If you need more time to prepare for the court hearing, you can ask for an adjournment. This means the court hearing will be postponed to give you more time. To ask for an adjournment, contact your landlord or their solicitors. If they agree, you or the landlord should then write to the court saying you have both agreed to an adjournment. The court will normally adjourn the case if you and the landlord have both agreed.

If your landlord doesn’t agree to an adjournment, or it isn’t possible to contact your landlord, turn up at court on the date of the hearing and ask for an adjournment at the hearing itself.

Prepare for your possession hearing

The court will tell you when your hearing is and where you need to go for it. 

You should go to the possession hearing – it's your chance to put forward your case in court and give reasons why you should stay in your home.

If you can’t go to the possession hearing, tell the court as soon as possible. Explain why you can’t go – for example because you have to self-isolate. The court might:

  • arrange for the hearing to happen by phone or video call
  • change the date of the hearing

You can check how to prepare if the court decides to arrange a hearing by phone or video call.

If you are an assured shorthold tenant, there might not be a hearing if you don’t return the defence form.

You can get a lawyer to represent you in court. If you’ve got no income or a low income, you might be able to get legal aid to help with the cost. Find out if you can get help with legal costs at GOV.UK.

On the day of the hearing, you’ll also be able to contact the duty adviser – it doesn’t matter how much income you have. If you can, you should get to court early so you have time to talk to them. Before the date of the possession hearing, read the letters from the court and make sure you know how to contact the duty adviser.

If you can’t contact the duty adviser on the day of the hearing, tell the usher or the judge before the hearing starts – the judge might agree to delay the hearing.

Talk to an adviser to find out what legal advice you can get.

If you’re disabled

If you’re disabled, check whether suitable facilities are available at the court. You can find out access details of the court on the Ministry of Justice website at: www.justice.gov.uk. If you’ve got a disability which makes going to court or communicating difficult, you can contact the Disability Helpline on 0800 358 3506. A text phone service for deaf or hard of hearing people is also available on 0191 478 1476.

Getting evidence together

Before the date of the hearing, you should get together all the evidence you’ll need to make your case. For example, you may need to take proof of your financial circumstances like your wage slips and your bank statements.

Make sure you have any court papers you’ve been sent - you’ll need these to help the duty adviser represent you.

If you are owed money, for example if you are owed Universal Credit housing costs or another benefit, you should try and get written confirmation of this that you can show to the judge.

If you’ve already made payments towards the arrears, the court will need to see evidence, for example, a receipt. If your landlord has refused to accept these payments, but you’ve put the money aside, take proof of this money to show the court.

You should bring a copy of your financial statement or budget sheet. This is a statement showing how much money you have coming into your household, how much you spend and how much you have left over to pay the arrears. If you sent a financial statement or budget sheet back with the defence form but your circumstances have changed since then, you should do a new one and bring this with you.

For more information about drawing up a financial statement or budget sheet, see How to work out your budget.

Go to your possession hearing

Coronavirus - wearing a face mask or covering at court

When you go to the court in person, you’ll have to wear a mask or covering for your mouth and nose. If you don’t wear one, you won’t be allowed in the building. Some people don’t have to wear one – check who doesn’t have to wear a mask or face covering on GOV.UK.

You should make sure you go to the possession hearing even if you've not sent your defence. It's your opportunity to explain your situation to the court.

You could give any extra evidence you have, for example if you've got a new job and could afford to pay back some arrears.

You can take someone with you for support, for example a friend or family member. They might not be able to speak for you in court.

What decisions can the judge make

At the court hearing, the judge will listen to both sides of the story and look at the evidence brought to court. The hearing will be in private and it generally won’t last very long.

At the end of the hearing, the judge will make a decision called an order. The judge will tell both you and the landlord what that decision is and the court will send a copy of the court order to both of you. This is usually within a few days of the hearing. However, you should make your own note of the judge’s decision as there’s sometimes a delay in the court posting the order out.

There are several types of decision a judge might be able to make. These are to:

Postponed possession orders

If the judge makes a postponed possession order, it means you can carry on living in your home as long as you keep to certain conditions. These will usually include paying the rent and an agreed amount off the arrears.

If you don't keep to the conditions, the landlord can ask the court for permission to evict you. They will have to go through another procedure first though. This involves applying to the court for a possession date and then, once they've got this, applying for a warrant of possession.

For more information about what your landlord needs to do to evict you if they have a postponed possession order, see Eviction for rent arrears.

You might be able to either:

  • ask the court to set the order aside - you’ll need to have a good reason to do this
  • appeal against the order - you'll need a solicitor to do this

If your circumstances change and you can't keep to the conditions of the order, you may be able to get the court to change (vary) the conditions.

Talk to an adviser if You may need to get expert help if you need help dealing with a postponed possession order

Suspended possession orders

A suspended possession order is similar to a postponed possession order. It gives you the right to stay in your home as long as you stick to an agreement to keep up the rent payments and pay off the arrears.

If you don't stick to the agreement, your landlord can apply to the court for a warrant of possession to evict you. However, unlike a postponed possession order, you won't be told in advance if they do this - you’ll be given 14 days before you have to move out.

Once your landlord gets the warrant of possession, you can be forced to leave your home.

For more information about what happens when your landlord gets a warrant of possession, see Eviction for rent arrears.

If your landlord asks the court to give them a suspended possession order 

During the hearing you could ask the court to:

  • make the conditions of the order affordable - for example, they’ll need to make sure you can afford the repayments

  • adjourn the hearing - you’ll need to have a good reason to ask for this

If your landlord has got a suspended possession order

After the hearing you might be able to:

  • ask the court to set the order aside - you’ll need to have a good reason to ask for this

  • appeal against the order - you’ll need a solicitor to do this

  • ask the court to change the conditions of the order - you can do this if your circumstances change

Outright possession orders

If the court grants your landlord an outright possession order, this will say that you have to leave the property by a certain date. Your landlord is likely to be granted an outright possession order if:

  • you’re unable to persuade the judge that you can keep up your rent payments and pay off the arrears
  • your landlord gave you a section 21 notice
  • you haven’t paid enough of your arrears off and your landlord gave you a section 8 notice under ‘ground 8’ - find out more about section 8 notices

If you can persuade the judge that you’re able to keep up your rent payments and pay off the arrears, you may be able to get the outright order changed to a postponed or suspended possession order.

Talk to an adviser if you need advice about an outright possession order.

If you have an assured shorthold tenancy, you may not have had the chance to go to court and speak to a judge.

Talk to an adviser if your landlord gave you a section 21 notice and you didn’t have a hearing - you might be able to ask for the order to be set aside.

If your landlord gets an outright possession order and you don’t leave the property by the date on the order, your landlord will need to get a warrant of possession.

For more information about what happens when your landlord gets a warrant of possession, see Eviction for rent arrears.

Sometimes it’s possible to persuade your landlord not to apply for the warrant of possession. For example, your financial circumstances may change or your Universal Credit claim may come through and pay off all the arrears.

For more information about how to deal with your landlord when you have rent arrears, see Paying off your rent arrears.

Money judgements

When your landlord asks the court to give them a possession order on your home, they may also ask for a money judgement. This is an ordinary county court judgement (CCJ). 

If your landlord has been granted a suspended or postponed possession order, the money judgement will usually be postponed or suspended as well. This means that you can continue to live at the property as long as you keep up with your rent payments and pay back what you owe at the rate set out in the possession order.

If your landlord is granted a CCJ, they can take further legal action against you. For example, if you break the terms of the CCJ they could ask the court if they can send bailiffs to your new home.

If your landlord gets a CCJ against you, it will affect your credit rating. You may have difficulty getting credit and borrowing money in the future.

For more information about how a CCJ affects your credit rating and what you can do about this, see County court judgements and your credit rating - overview.

Get help with bills and budgeting

If you're trying to cut your spending, or are having problems with your outgoings, you could get help with bills. You could also use our budgeting tool to see exactly where your money goes each month.

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