The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities have introduced the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill into Parliament alongside a new code of practice.
The Departments said that the Bill would “introduce a ringfence for rent debts built up as a result of mandated business closures during the pandemic whilst establishing a new binding arbitration process aimed at finding a proportionate solution which protects jobs, prevents further damage to the economy and enables a return to normal commercial relations”.
They said that the code could be used by any business to help them negotiate and resolve rent disputes even if they fall outside of scope for arbitration.
The Government said: “Many landlords and tenants are working well together to reach agreements in respect of rent debts resulting from the pandemic; however, some landlords have pursued remedies such as County Court or High Court Judgements.
“The government intends protected rent debts to be resolved by mutual agreement, or by the Bill’s arbitration system, which considers both parties’ circumstances in the exceptional context of the pandemic.”
The Bill, if passed, will allow a stay of any debt claims that include ringfenced debt and are issued between 10 November 2021 and the Bill coming into force.
“It would enable the ringfenced debt under these claims, and any County Court or High Court Judgements made in respect of such claims to be subject to arbitration. Any registration of such judgments for ringfenced debt may be cancelled following an arbitration award. The Bill, if passed, will prevent issue of debt claims including ringfenced debt until the end of the arbitration application period or the arbitration process,” the Departments said.
The Bill, if passed, will also prevent a landlord from petitioning for bankruptcy of a business tenant such as a sole trader, based on non-payment of a statutory demand relating to any ringfenced debt served on or after 10 November 2021 and before the Bill comes into force.
“It will also prevent a petition based on a judgment debt if the claim was issued in this period. If a petition is presented or an order is made relying on such a petition in this period, the Bill provides for these to have no effect.”
The Government said it discouraged landlords from drawing down on tenancy deposits – or where already drawn, requiring landlords to top up - to cover ringfenced rental arrears. “If a landlord has already drawn down on the deposit to account for ring-fenced debt, the Bill would suspend the requirement for the tenant to top-up the deposit and the sum drawn down may be considered within arbitration.”
Tenants are meanwhile encouraged to specify which period of rent is being paid for. “If an unspecified amount is, or has been, paid by the tenant following the end of the ringfenced period, the Bill provides for it to cover rent outside the ring-fenced period before it is used for the ringfenced period.”
To provide the time to introduce and pass the legislation, the moratorium on forfeiture and restrictions on the use of Commercial Rent Arrears Recovery (CRAR) regime remain in place until 25 March 2022, unless legislation is passed ahead of this. The moratoriums on forfeiture in Wales and Northern Ireland respectively are in place until 25 March 2022. There are restrictions on presenting of winding-up petitions until 31 March 2022.
The Departments added: “Following the replacement of the current protections with the Bill’s arbitration legislation, for debts out of scope of Bill’s binding arbitration process, landlords will be able to exercise their ordinary remedies in the ways they did prior to the introduction of the moratorium in March 2020. For debts in scope of the Bill, these ordinary remedies will be available after the application period for arbitration if no application is made. If an arbitration award is made and not complied with then the usual remedies would apply.”
The Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill will apply in respect of unpaid rent arrears relating to the ring-fenced period, of business tenants which:
a) Were mandated to close their premises or business (in whole or in part, including with exceptions such as non-essential shops being allowed to open for collections) under regulations made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 during the COVID-19 pandemic; and
b) Lease their premises under a business tenancy, as defined by Part II of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954; that is, a tenancy under which premises are occupied by the tenant for business purposes (or business and other purposes).