From a recent case, a fairly textbook example of how not to go about things as a private landlord.
The client was a shorthold assured tenant, with a years’ assured period and a monthly rent. Rent was paid by housing benefit, and the inevitable problems arose (not the client’s fault).
The landlord firstly attempted to give notice by a note. This was invalid in form and was within the assured term (there was no break clause in the tenancy agreement). The Council Tenancy Relations officer told the client this was invalid and to stay.
The landlord came round and behaved in a somewhat threatening manner on a few occasions, then nothing.
Two months later, a Notice to Quit, headed section 8, turns up. The client came to us. The notice was invalid in form, declared a date of service that was wrong, and gave a date for possession that was inside the assured period. I wrote to the landlord pointing this out.
From the client interview, it was also clear that there was significant disrepair and had been for some months. On client’s instruction, I sent the landlord an Early Notification letter under the disrepair pre-action protocol, which also recommended that he sought independent legal advice. No reply.
The landlord issued a claim for possession under the accelerated possession procedure. I drafted a defence based on the multiple invalidity of the notice. The claim was thrown out without a hearing.
We got a surveyor in as emergency, as the landlord hadn’t responded. On the basis of the report and instructions, we issued a claim for disrepair and application for interim injunction, which was personally served. The landlord came to the hearing of the injuction, unrepresented, and said there were rent arrears. We had counsel. The Court, of course, said ‘so what? He had breached the tenancy agreement’ and gave an injunction order for urgent repairs and quiet enjoyment, with penal notice, plus costs. The Court directly advised him to get legal advice.
The urgent repairs were done.
The landlord failed to file acknowledgment of service or a defence. So I applied for default judgement and got it, with directions for a quantum only hearing and costs to that point.
By now the assured term was over. The landlord could easily have served a proper Notice requiring possession under s.21 and made an accelerated claim for possession. There is no defence to this, if done properly. My client actually wanted to go, having spent a hellish winter in the place, but needed to be evicted to make a homeless application (the client had clear priority need and no other available accommodation).
A couple of months later, the landlord served a Notice under s.21. (OK, so the dates were still technically wrong, but the client didn’t want to defend it).
We served disclosure, witness statements on quantum and listing questionnaire, as per directions. No response.
Then the landlord changed the locks while the client was away. I called him and he refused to give re-entry. Cue an application for another interim injunction for re-entry, which was given, with a return hearing. The landlord got a solicitor to make an application to set it aside, then de-instructed solicitor, turned up to the hearing in person and said that there were rent arrears and it wasn’t fair. (There were still arrears. Housing Benefit were still messing up). We had counsel. The Court, of course, ordered re-entry by the next day, with a penal notice and costs. Re-entry given.
I next made an application on the papers for an unless order to debar him from adducing evidence to the quantum hearing if he didn’t comply with directions immediately. The landlord didn’t respond. We got the order.
The quantum hearing had the expected result, a fairly sizeable damages award, plus costs. The landlord, representing himself, raised rent arrears in oral evidence, but couldn’t actually quantify them. In any case, a housing benefit back payment is imminent.
We are also considering the merits of a possible further claim for damages for unlawful eviction.
The landlord, much to the client’s frustration, has still not issued a claim for possession.
The landlord could have had the client out about 6 months ago, with no fuss. If he hadn’t tried to get the client out improperly within the assured term, it is highly unlikely that the client would even have considered a disrepair claim. Once issued, the disrepair claim could quite possibly have been settled at an early stage and probably for rather less than resulted from the quantum hearing. And of course, our costs are at inter parte rates, so are not negligible.
The morals of this story, if you want to be a private landlord, are:
- Realise that the Tenancy Agreement is a binding contract.
- Realise that there are significant statutory provisions on your responsibilities. Do the repairs. Don’t enter without giving notice.
- Realise that there are significant statutory provisions on Shorthold Assured tenancies and how to end them that have to be followed precisely.
- Don’t evict people without a court warrant.
- Rent arrears are not an excuse for behaving illegally.
- Get legal advice before you start letting, on the tenancy agreement, on your responsibilities and on what actions you can take in the event of problems. Consider legal insurance as a business expense.
- Be aware that letting is not a low maintenance income generator.
Of course, many landlords get away with any or all of the above, because few tenants realise what legal rights they have or can get help to do anything about it. But it does take a particular brand of arrogance or stupidity to just blithely do what the hell you want when the tenant has lawyered up. Particularly when the lawyers know what properties you own and where you work and have a costs order…