COVID-19: considerations when closing residential accommodation
At present the government advice is “business as usual”, but institutions may yet choose to close their doors in order to limit the spread of the virus.
What are the considerations if you are planning temporary closure of student accommodation?
Students will usually occupy their accommodation under a fixed term accommodation licence/agreement. It is worth checking that this includes a provision for termination in exceptional circumstances.
Student occupiers will clearly need to be given as much prior warning that temporary closure of their residences is contemplated before formal notice of closure is given to them. They will need some time to make alternative arrangements. But in these exceptional times institutions may find that despite their best endeavours the amount of notice they can give is very short.
How do you manage the closure of student accommodation?
Clearly, not all students are going to be able to find alternative accommodation, and therefore there will always be some students who require the continuing provision of accommodation.
The institution should have a contingency plan in place to deal with those students who are unable to leave/relocate from their student accommodation at short notice. This plan may include placing students into categories based according to whether they are:
- already self-isolating due to suspected infection (or are returning travellers); or
- confirmed as infected;
- not in either of the above categories but unable to return home or relocate for whatever reason – e.g. international students unable to travel.
Whilst the institution may prefer to close blocks of student accommodation in the interests of public safety, it will still need to be able to relocate students in each category to alternative accommodation.
How do you deal with students who refuse to leave?
What about a student who refuses to leave/relocate even after all appropriate notices have been given. How do you manage them? Clearly the institution still requires vacant possession of its residences blocks in the interests of public safety.
There are legal mechanisms in place which will help you deal with this. Even though students in this category are trespassers, the institution does not have the power to remove any individual without first obtaining a final possession order from the court. In fact, if you do so, you will fall foul of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
The institution will need to issue court proceedings seeking a possession order. It is expected that courts will be supportive of the current situation surrounding COVID-19 and such claims for possession will be expedited for hearing to help manage this process.
Once a possession order has been obtained, if the student still refuses to leave/relocate, then the court bailiffs must handle the closure of the premises. Security personnel retained by the institution will not have any authority to enforce these orders. Court bailiffs already have full COVID-19 contingency measures in place so that they are available to attend when required.
In light of the above, universities and colleges may want to consider the following when making preparations for closure:
- consider how you will handle those students who are required to remain in residences despite closure;
- check the terms of licences for student accommodation and seek advice on those terms if required.
- give notice of proposed closure as soon as possible.
- be ready to take formal action promptly (which may include court proceedings if necessary) to enforce closure.
In the event the government advice goes beyond the present “business as usual” phase and the situation worsens, it is likely that emergency legislation will be put in place. We can expect this may include giving more power to the police to assist in enforcing restrictions on movement.