Coronavirus: advice for UK landlords

Out-Law Guide | 29 Jun 2020 | 5:24 pm | 12 min. read

UK commercial and residential tenants who miss rent payments due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic are to be protected from eviction for at least three months.

The necessary legislation for England, Wales and Northern Ireland is included in the Coronavirus Act. In Scotland the necessary legislation is included in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act.

As additional restrictions on movement and businesses are announced by the government in an attempt to control the spread of the outbreak, landlords may struggle with the impact on their buildings and rental income. Some of the potential issues for landlords of commercial properties in particular are set out below, but specific legal advice should be sought before any action is taken.

Can my tenant terminate their lease arguing that it has been frustrated?

It is unlikely that a tenant will be able to argue that the lease has been frustrated.

The bar for termination of a lease by 'frustration' is high: it applies where supervening events unprovided for in the lease significantly alter the parties' obligations and bring the lease to an end. While the restrictions placed on the use of some premises because of the coronavirus pandemic might be considered a supervening event, it is unlikely that a temporary inability to occupy the premises would meet this test.

However, the terms of the lease and the length of the interruption to occupation may be relevant.

Where the tenant has a contractual break, the pandemic may make it more likely that the tenant exercises that break.

Can my tenant claim a reduction in rent if they are unable to use the premises?

Probably not. Very few leases contain a 'force majeure' clause which could allow either party to say that the obligations in the lease are suspended because of Covid-19.

The bar for termination of a lease by 'frustration' is high: it applies where supervening events unprovided for in the lease significantly alter the parties' obligations and bring the lease to an end. It is unlikely that a temporary inability to occupy the premises would meet this test.

In most leases the obligation to pay the rent is only suspended, or the amount of rent reduced, where there has been "damage" to or "destruction" of the premises by an insured risk or, in some cases, an uninsured risk. Covid-19 itself does not cause physical damage to or destruction of premises, so these provisions are unlikely to be engaged.

Turnover rents in retail leases will be significantly impacted where premises are forced to close.

As a landlord, you may decide to defer, reduce or entirely suspend the rent for a period to avoid tenant insolvency. Any decisions of this type must be documented very carefully.

If a lease was frustrated, as above, it is possible that any advance payments of rent would be repayable.

Do I still have to provide services to my tenants?

As above, very few leases contain a force majeure clause which could allow the landlord to suspend its obligation to provide any services.

However, check the lease to see if the obligation to provide services contains exclusions such as in respect of matters outside the landlord's control, or if the obligation is only to use reasonable endeavours to provide the services. In the latter case, if the coronavirus makes it impossible to provide the services using reasonable endeavours – for example, due to staff or contractor sickness – you should not be liable for any failure to provide the services.

Provision of services should take account of the restrictions and requirements for social distancing under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and guidance from Public Health England (PHE) and Health Protection Scotland (HPS). This guidance is being reviewed and updated regularly.

Do I have to provide deep cleaning or other additional services?

This will depend on the terms of the lease. An obligation to clean, and keep safe, the common parts of the premises may well cover deep cleaning. It would be unusual for there to be any obligation on a landlord to clean demised premises leased to individual tenants as opposed to the common parts, or for there to be any right of access to enable the landlord to do so.

However, it may not be practical to deep clean the common parts without also cleaning the demised premises. You must also comply with your obligations under UK health and safety law, which require landlords to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of their employees and to ensure people working in or visiting a building are not exposed to risks to their health to the extent that the landlord has control of the premises. To the extent that you do not have control, your tenants must also comply with their own health and safety law obligations.

You should keep up to date with any relevant government guidance on workplace Covid-19 related measures.

If I do provide extra services, can I recover the cost from my tenant?

Again, this will depend on the terms of the lease. Landlords will often have the right to provide and charge for additional services – such as for good estate management or other reasonable reasons - and this may extend to deep cleaning or other protective measures.

Where the lease provides for the recovery of costs incurred in the supply of services the landlord considers it has become usual to provide in similar buildings, or where enhanced cleaning follows government recommendations, then it should be possible for the landlord to recover the additional cost.

Can I close the building?

Some premises are required by law to be closed to members of the public. Under the 2020 Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations and corresponding regulations for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, these include:

  • premises used for the consumption of food and drink, although they can remain open to provide takeaway services only;
  • specified types of leisure premises, which in fact include most types of leisure premises; and
  • specified non-essential retail premises.

Closure of the building might mean you face claims from tenants for breaches of landlord covenants, in particular covenants for quiet enjoyment and not to derogate from grant.

If closure is required by law or in accordance with PHE or HPS advice, then this could provide a defence to any claim for breach of landlord obligations under the lease. If closure goes beyond what is legally required or recommended by the guidance, then the landlord may be liable for tenants' losses as a result of breach of covenant.

Closure, whether or not in accordance with PHE or HPS guidance or legally required, will not usually result in rent suspension or termination rights under the insurance provisions becoming relevant unless there is physical damage to the premises although the lease drafting and relevant insurance policy should be checked. Again, where closure goes beyond what is legally required or recommended in PHE or HPS guidance the tenant may have a claim for breach of covenant.

The landlord will have health and safety law duties towards any of its own employees working in the building.

Can my tenant refuse to pay rent if I close the building?

Probably not. Even if the tenant has a claim for breach of covenant, if, as is common, the lease says that rent is payable without deduction or set off, they should continue to pay the rent and then seek to recover damages for breach of covenant as a separate action.

Rent suspension provisions are unlikely to apply, but the wording of the lease should be checked.

Where there is no legal requirement for the building to be closed, consultation with the tenant in relation to any potential closure may help to minimise the risk of litigation in the future.

Can my tenant close its premises?

Where the relevant Health Protection Regulations require closure, the tenant must close the premises to members of the public. This does not mean that the premises cannot be used for aspects of the tenant's business which do not involve public access to the premises, such as processing online orders.

Otherwise, the tenant can choose to close its premises unless the lease contains a 'keep open' clause or clause requiring the premises not to be left empty for a period which the closure exceeds. Courts are reluctant in some cases to enforce keep open clauses by requiring tenants to stay open, but damages may still be awarded for breaches. If the closure is required by law or in line with PHE or HPS guidance, it is unlikely that any keep open covenant or covenant not to leave the building empty would be enforceable.

You should check whether leases provide for the tenants to notify the landlord if the premises are left empty, as this may affect your insurance. It is a good idea to liaise with tenants where possible about their intentions, so that you can inform the insurers when buildings are empty.

What happens where the government has forced the closure of premises?

Without specific legislation, this would not alter the parties' obligations under the lease. However, the obligation to comply with statute may remove the right of either party to enforce any covenant that had been breached.

Government intervention may make it easier for tenants to claim on their business interruption insurance.

Can I change the opening hours of the premises?

This will depend entirely on the provisions of the lease.

If the lease contains a tenant's covenant to comply with reasonable regulations the landlord makes from time to time, a regulation which required tenants to follow PHE or HPS guidance would be reasonable.

Do I have to act in good faith if the tenant asks for variations to the lease and rent to reflect coronavirus?

Not unless there is a specific provision in the lease, which would be unusual. However, there may be commercial or reputational reasons why you would want to engage with the tenants in respect of any request, particularly where necessary to avoid tenant insolvency.

Do I still have the same remedies against the tenant for breach of obligations that remain unchanged?

Significant changes have been made, or are in the course of being made, to landlords' remedies during the Covid-19 pandemic. The following changes have been made to a landlord's ability to end a lease and secure possession of premises.

Forfeiture

Sections 82 and 83 of the Coronavirus Act originally imposed a three-month moratorium on landlords' ability to forfeit leases of commercial property for non-payment of rent in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, respectively. That period has now been extended until 30 September 2020 in England and Wales under the 2020 Business Tenancies (Protection from Forfeiture: Relevant Period) (Coronavirus) (England) Regulations and the 2020 Business Tenancies (Extension of Protection from Forfeiture etc.) (Wales) (Coronavirus) Regulations respectively. A similar extension has been announced by the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland.

The relevant provisions of the Coronavirus Act apply to the vast majority of commercial leases, but not most leases for terms of less than six months. They prevent landlords from taking any action to forfeit for non-payment of rents or other sums, including service charges and insurance rent, from 26 March until 30 September 2020. This period may be extended further. The Act provides that in any existing proceedings there can be no order for possession before 30 September (although in England and Wales this now appears to be largely superseded by the new measures relating to possession proceedings referred to below).

Despite sections 82 and 83, forfeiture by peaceable re-entry would still be available to a landlord for breaches unrelated to non-payment of rent or other sums due.

Residential tenancies

Section 81 of the Act provides for similar protections from eviction - by extension of notice periods - for tenants of many types of residential property tenancies in England and Wales, including assured and assured shorthold tenancies. The notice period required for landlords to terminate many residential tenancies in Northern Ireland has been extended too under the 2020 Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Act (Northern Ireland).

Possession proceedings

A new Practice Direction under the Civil Procedure Rules (PD 51Z) issued on 26 March and amended on 17 April 2020 provided for a stay for all possession proceedings in England and Wales for 90 days from 27 March until 25 June 2020. That period has now been extended until 23 August 2020 by a change to the Civil Procedure Rules themselves under the Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 2) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020.

The stay does not apply to possession proceedings for trespass against "persons unknown" or to applications for interim possession orders against trespassers, and does not prevent case management directions being agreed by the parties.

Remedies in Scotland

In Scotland, a landlord may only terminate, or 'irritate', a lease after it has given the tenant a period of time within which to remedy the breach. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act extends the period of time to 14 weeks for non-payment of rent, effectively creating a block on a landlord on terminating during that period. Previously the landlord only had to give 14 days' notice before bringing the lease to an end. The 14 week period may be extended by the Scottish government under the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act. There is no statutory relief from irritancy in Scotland so if the tenant does not clear the rental arrears within the 14 week period the landlord will be entitled to issue a notice to terminate the lease should they wish to do so.

Will I need to stop demanding rent once any arrears fall due to preserve my right to forfeit when the moratorium ends?

The Coronavirus Act protects landlords in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from inadvertently waiving the right to forfeit for non-payment of rent or other charges during the moratorium period. You can therefore continue to demand rent and deal with requests for consent etc. under the lease without waiving the right to forfeit for non-payment of arrears.

However, if you want to forfeit for some other breach of the lease, the usual rules apply and you will need to stop demanding rent or taking any other action consistent with the continuation of the lease.

In Scotland, there have been no changes to the procedure regarding non-financial irritancy in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act.  Acceptance of rent after the lease has been irritated can be construed as a waiver of the irritancy in certain circumstances. Landlords should exercise caution after an irritancy notice has been served if the tenant attempts to make further rental payments.

Do I still have the other landlord remedies to recover sums due and unpaid under the lease?

It is important to note that the Coronavirus Act does not suspend the right to rent or other payments, only the right to forfeit the lease for non-payment until the moratorium ends. While the moratorium applies, landlords retain the right to charge interest on the arrears at a rate specified in the lease; to bring debt recovery proceedings against tenants; and to have recourse to parent company or other guarantors, rent deposits or other forms of security for payment.  However, the following changes have been made, or are due to be made, which affect other landlords' remedies.

Commercial Rent Arrears Recovery (CRAR)

From 24 June 2020, the minimum amount of net unpaid rent required before you can exercise CRAR in England and Wales has been increased to an amount equal to 189 days’ rent (having previously been increased from seven to 90 days' rent).  However, remember it is not possible to enter unoccupied premises in order to exercise rights under CRAR.

Statutory Demands and Winding-Up Petitions

The Corporate Governance and Insolvency Act came into force on 26 June 2020 but, as expected, parts of it have retrospective effect. The Act imposes a temporary halt on the use of statutory demands (made from 1 March 2020 until 30 September 2020) and winding up petitions (from 27 April until 30 September 2020) where the company is unable to pay its bills because of coronavirus.

Even before the Act was passed, courts were taking the government guidance on the draft Bill into account in applications for winding up petitions but had refused injunctions to prevent such petitions in respect of debts owed long before the pandemic arose.

The Act provides that, between 27 April and 30 September, no petition to wind up a company in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland can be presented on the ground that the company has not paid sums due under a statutory demand served on or after 1 March 2020. It further provides that a winding-up petition cannot be presented between 27 April and 30 September unless the creditor has reasonable grounds to believe that coronavirus has not had a financial effect on the debtor or that the debtor would have been unable to pay its debts even if coronavirus had not had a financial effect on it. If a petition is presented and it appears to the court that coronavirus has had a financial effect on the debtor, the Act prevents a winding-up order being made unless the court is satisfied the debtor could not have paid its debts even if there had been no such financial effect. These periods can be extended under the Act by up to six months at a time.

The government published a code of practice for landlords and tenants of commercial property across the UK on 19 June. The code is voluntary, but it has been endorsed by a number of organisations including the RICS. The main principle of the code of practice is "transparency and collaboration", and the government's aim is to encourage landlords and tenants to act "reasonably and responsibly".

Other remedies in Scotland

All other landlord remedies for non-payment of rent in Scotland remain available: for example penalty interest, summary diligence.