An interesting and novel first instance case has recently emerged from Reigate County Court. Minter v Mole Valley District Council was heard by DJ George on 25th May 2011 and it was reported in the papers here. The facts in summary are as follows:
M approached MVDC with a view to letting her property in Dorking under the local authority’s rent deposit scheme. M was accepted for the scheme and she was introduced to a prospective tenant, Lisa Alexander. The property was let to Ms Alexander on 26th March 2007 and the property was repossessed on 9th June 2008, Ms Alexander having left a trail of devastation in her wake. M in evidence described the state of the property as disgusting: white goods and kitchen units were damaged, there were maggots in the wheelie bins, the shower room contained excrement and the carpets smelled of urine. In addition, Ms Alexander had left behind arrears of £2180.33. M calculated her out-of-pocket expenses to be £4860.27.
M’s case against MVDC was that the council had negligently misstated the worthiness of Ms Alexander as a prospective tenant. M described how she overheard a housing officer saying to Ms Alexander in a separate room: “we don’t want another Abinger.” Although M did not realise the significance of this at the time, it emerged that this referred to the condition in which Ms Alexander had left a previous property at 18 Abinger Close. This indicated that MVDC was well aware that Ms A was a problematic tenant.
The judge accepted M’s evidence that the council had given assurances to M that it would vet prospective tenants when she subscribed to the scheme, which meant M was entitled to assume that Ms Alexander would be a suitable tenant. The council had also misrepresented the state of Ms Alexander’s previous property in a letter of 8th April 2008, where they stated (falsely) that she had not left it in a filthy state. Despite the council’s claims of Ms Alexander’s confidentiality and data protection, the judge found that had they asked Ms Alexander for permission to disclose further details of her history, any refusal on Ms A’s part would have influenced M when deciding whether to let the property to her.
The judge found that it was reasonable to impose a duty of care on MVDC towards M, that MVDC had negligently misrepresented Ms A’s suitability as a tenant and that it was reasonable for M to be compensated for her losses, totalling £4860.27 plus interest of £1153.21 and small claims expenses.
Comment: although this is an uncommon case on its facts, the prospects of similar claims being made in the future are higher in the light of the enactment of the Localism Act and the ability of local authorities to discharge their homelessness duties by means of a private sector offer. I am not aware of any other local authorities who undertake to vet the suitability of accepted homelessness applicants-this would surely be too onerous a task even if they wanted to do it. However, the case may raise the stakes slightly when dealing with applications from the intentionally homeless.
Finally, many thanks must go to Matthew Hearsum of Morrisons Solicitors, who advised Ms Minter and kindly provided a transcript of the hearing.