Hide and seek – unlawful eviction

Ryan Insalaco v i) One Room UK ii) Paulo de Souza iii) Alisson Teixeira. County Court at Willesden, 6 July 2018

An unlawful eviction claim, notable for the casualness of the eviction and the efforts the defendants then went to to pretend the claim wasn’t happening.

Mr Insalaco had a tenancy of a room in shared house in St John’s Wood. This was an assured shorthold tenancy starting about 4 December 2016, for a fixed term of 8 or 12 months (Mr I had lost the tenancy agreement and wasn’t sure). The landlord was ‘One Room UK’ (here they are). Mr I paid a deposit of £400 and two week’s rent. Mr I:

was told that there would be a fee of £30 for late payment of rent and that the rent would be collected by someone who came to the flat. If the Claimant was out, he would call the Defendant and ask to go to their offices to pay, but the Defendant always refused to give any address and instead charged a late payment fee.

That is completely lovely and not at all unreasonable. Nor should it interest HMRC.

On 4 February 2017, Mr I went on holiday for a week. He left a note on the door for the Defendant as he knew he would be away on the rent collection day, he also asked a flatmate to call the Defendant to inform them. On his return on 10 February, Mr I found the locks had been changed, the entry codes to the building had been changed and, a flatmate told him, all his belongings had been packed into boxes and moved from his room.

Mr I stayed on the sofa at a friend’s flat. Despite calling the Defendant, he was not given an office address. The Defendant instead demanded an address to send Mr I’s belongings to. Viewings were taking place to re-let Mr I’s room.

(On belongings, some were eventually sent to Mr I’s solicitors in March, some were damaged and other were lost).

Mr I was left sofa surfing between friends in London, Paris and Morocco, until at least October 2017 (the period of the claim, as we’ll come back to below).

Mr I had instructed solicitors on 24 February 2017. The solicitors called One Room UK and spoke to a ‘Kevin’. The solicitors raised the unlawful eviction and asked for One Room UK’s address. Kevin said there was no office, he wouldn’t give a postal address, but gave an email address. A letter of claim was emailed. Further emails asking for an address for service and the whereabouts of lost belongings were ignored.

In October 2017, proceedings were issued. Having established that One Room UK were not a company, Mr I’s solicitors applied for substituted service by email and were granted it. The claim was deemed served on 1 December.. Defence due within 14 days. No defence filed.

An application for default judgment was granted on 26 February 2018. The disposal hearing listed for 6 July 2018. Mr I’s solicitors, having had investigations carried out, applied to amend to include Paulo De Souza and Alisson Teixeira as defendants as being the individuals trading as One Room UK. This was granted.

Still zero response from One Room UK.

At the disposal hearing, damages were assessed as follows:

The period of the claim was limited to 10 February 2017 to 31 October 2017, on the basis that the tenancy agreement may have been for 8 months, so the term would have ended on 31 October. (Following what I still regard to be the manifestly wrong judgment of the Court of Appeal in Smith v Khan (2018) EWCA Civ 1137 (our note)).

General damages for a period 202 days were awarded at £125 per night, (£25,250) and for the last 60 mights, when Mr I’s situation had somewhat improved, though still sofa surfing, £50 per night (£3000).

Damages for harassment £1000

Special damages awarded in full: £1,952.10

Aggravated damages – awarded on the utter failure of the defendant to engage with the situtation and the seizing and lack of care on belongings – £1,500

Exemplary damages – conceded by the claimant to be at the lower end of conduct but should be an award – £1,500

(I interrupt to ask why? Exemplary damages are not on conduct per se – that is aggravated damages – but on the defendant seeking gain through their breach of the law. Here – eviction with no warning or notice, let alone the proper legal means – this strikes me as the poster child for exemplary damages).

There was also an order for the return of the unprotected £400 deposit and the maximum three time penalty – so a further £1,600 total.

Interest at 3.25% from issue of claim.

Total: £36,557.36 to 20 July 2018

Costs – awarded on an indemnity basis because of the defendant’s total failure to engage. A payment on account of £7,500 ordered.

The claimant’s solicitors efforts to identify the people behind One Room UK, who had unlawfully evicted Mr I, found that the registration of the website led to an email address related to rentandroomsmanagement.com (a non existent site, but valid domain) which in turn led to Rent and Rooms Management Limited and thus Paulo De Souza and Alisson Teixeira.

Hi Paulo and Alisson. You owe a lot of money and shouldn’t be anywhere near a tenancy.

Any landlords considering letting One Room UK manage property, let alone enter a ‘rent to rent’ or ‘guaranteed rent’ arrangement should take note.

(Many thanks to Will Ford at Osbornes for the judgment and notes)

About Giles Peaker

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts, and still is Nearly Legal on Google +.
Posted in Assured Shorthold tenancy, Housing law - All, Unlawful eviction and harassment and tagged .

36 Comments

  1. This practice of operating an online agency with no incorporation or office address is becoming more and more widespread. The protagonists using online portals to advertise properties, thus avoiding so many of the pitfalls of Consumer Protection regs.

    In a recent case in Leytonstone I asked the tenants to show me their tenancy agreements. Only six of the ten could find them and when I read them, each had the name of a completely different letting agent on them. Whilst there the agents turned up to effect an illegal eviction. All occupants knew the same two guys as their own agents but nobody had noticed they had used different agency names on each agreement..

    Also increasingly common is the practice of having an out of UK presence, through say a Spanish website luring in mainly Spanish tenants and a local ‘Field agent’ based nowhere but who the tenants can call if they have a problem.

    The damages claim there is impressive but what is the likelihood of the tenants actually getting the money? One of the reasons for operating in such a clandestine way in the first place.

  2. And the basis on which any of the rent actually paid had been lawfully recoverable in the first place, no address for service having been given by the landlords, was…?

    • Quite. Although I can’t see that founding a money claim for the return of the rent. Section 48 provides rent shall not be treated as being due until address given – would defeat an arrears claim, but harder to argue as a basis for return of rent paid.

  3. I think there is still more to be done. Rent repayment order could also be added to the mix and where is the local authority in all this? Its highly likely the enforcement teams know these jokers, even under different names. A notice under section 16 of the Local Govt (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977, served on all relevant parties, including owner and mortgagee would rattle a few cages

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  5. As I understand it the award is against the agents and I presume they arent the owners

  6. Were special damages £11,952.10 or in fact just under £2,000? The comma is just after the one and the total damages awarded of £36,557.36 do not appear to tally with special damages of just under £12,000.

  7. The presumption in these dodgy rent to rent set-ups, is that the landlord is all too often presumed innocent and ignorant of what is going on but this model now accounts for well over half of the cases referred to Safer Renting by by the four London councils we provide a TRO service for and in 90% of them the landlord is fully aware what is going on, being regular visitors to the property and known to the occupants.

    One underused method to tackle them is for Trading Standards to get the agent to sign an undertaking to trade fairly under the Enterprise and Reform Act and then pursue them for contempt of court the minute you catch them at it again but the constant use of aliases and fake companies keeps you in cat and mouse territory.

    I noticed an article in Environmental Health News this week where Nottingham council successfully sued a landlord for harassing his student tenants, not under the PFEA but under consumer protection legislation. An interesting development
    http://www.ehn-online.com/news/article.aspx?id=17241

  8. I presume that Paulo De Souza and Alisson Teixeira were traced through a whois lookup of oneroomuk.com. Following the introduction of the GDPR the whois lookup of virtually everything is now a waste of time as the website registrant contact details are “redacted for privacy”.
    Try it and see for yourself.

  9. Haha I did just that early this morning SM, using Centralops to see who a website’s registrant is but in One Room’s case there is still a hotmail account for Ms T and a business registration address in Uxbridge

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  11. All very interesting BUT will Mr I actually be able to enforce the debt and received any monies? Why not prosecute under PEA1977 for illegal eviction and/or harassment and/or breach of s.7 (failure to provide address). I would have thought potential unlimited fine and/or 2 years in prison might be more of a deterrent?

  12. Richard in 28 years of prosecuting under the PFEA I have to say, the fines are pathetic, a few hundred pounds usually. Prison sentence? Never even comes up. The only value in a PFEA prosecution these days is in getting a banning order, so its still worth it on that front. When the PFEA was invented the average rogue landlord was very different to the profile of today’s version. Largely they are systematic and organised criminals, draining as much money from the rental market as possible through all possible means and using aliases, non-existent companies and multiple identity layers to evade detection and avoid prosecution. The PFEA is King Canute legislation, there are far better ways to punish offenders and you do that with money. Thats what really hurts them

  13. For what it is worth 192.com has a Mr Allison Roberto Teixeira on the electoral roll over the years 2013-2016 at an address somewhere in London NW2. Also gives a name for someone, a woman, who is a co-resident at the same address. If you were to put her name in the search box on https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk a full address is given from when she became a director of a company (since dissolved) in 2013. As to who might own that address someone who is interested enough could spend £3 for a search at the Land Registry but it may turn out that Mr Teixera is himself a tenant rather than an owner-occupier. If the claimant’s lawyers have indeed had investigations carried out this information may be known to them already.

  14. My colleague tells me it’s really quite easy to prove the protection from Unfair trading Regulations offences , we at Nottingham are employing a TS officer to work specifically in the housing enforcement team due to the level of work. Pays for itself with costs awarded to council. I’m sure my colleague can provide advice to TS officers who are interested, possibly share drafting of offences advice.

    • Richard the biggest change we are seeing in London over the past 5 or 6 years is an explosion in dodgy letting agents, who have become a service industry for criminals. Earlier this year I attended a trading standards conference and the head of one London borough said that in 2014 they did a head count of letting agents in their borough, there were 48. Just three years later they did the head count again and it was 286. A lot of the ones we are encountering now arent incorporated, have no office or website and just use Gumtree, Spare Room etc

  15. Ben. Point taken about PFEA or PEA prosecutions and pathetic fines issued BUT if PFEA is so useless why no campaign to refresh and/or up penalties and/or appeal derisory fines and/or push for trial at Crown Court? Trading Standards are not proactive enough using either PFEA or Accommodation Agencies Act 1953 to prosecute letting agencies. Some ‘mystery shopping’ on any High Street (virtual or real) by Trading Standards would produce ample evidence I would suspect.

    Commentators points about how Mr I can actually realize his compensation (i.e. enforcing an award or judgement) suggest civil penalties alone may not discourage the rogues?

    • Very interesting comment about campaigning to refresh the PFEA. I had exactly the same thought earlier in the week and it has to be said, as commented above that getting the award and getting the money are not the same thing. Councils are often particularly poor at this. When I worked for a certain London borough we got RROs totally £84,000 against one operator, the aim was to secure a charge on his property and force sale. Two years later the paperwork was still sitting in the legal team’s in-tray.

      Trading standards have oodles of shiny new powers to use against agents that go largely unused due to resource issues in most areas. I read a report last summer saying that due to cuts in teams they prioritise doorstep crime, under-age sales, fake alcohol and tobacco above letting agent work. This blindspot is known to agents. I go into a lot of them and none have their fees displayed on the wall, even the posh ones.

      Unlike the PFEA courts take it more seriously it would seem. Last year Islington TS team successfully prosecuted Green Live Estates for giving out just two licence agreements that should have been tenancies, are widespread practice and they were fined £11,000+ How come courts take consumer rights more seriously than housing law ones?

    • Having prosecuted for PFEA offences the fines are a bit of a lottery, I have started doing some work with our local magistrates court to raise awareness of the PFEA offences and the wider impact on victim and communities, out of frustration more than anything. In one of my recent prosecution cases the penalty was well in excess of the maximum penalty which makes absolutely no sense to me. The use of sentencing guidelines for PFEA offences would be a good start. What you also have to remember is that despite the penalty, the landlord will get a criminal record which can be disruptive to their day to day practice, take fit and proper person test for selective licensing as an example, banning orders and so on.

    • Good call again Richard but why did Nottingham not use the PFEA? It seems to me that since the introduction of unfair trading regs and the Housing and Planning Act the PFEA is a less attractive option. As Richard Paris suggests above, maybe it’s time the PFEA had a makeover, or the criminal judiciary need a makeover in their responses to prosecutions under it.

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  17. James I’m with you on the education of magistrates and well done indeed on that but I dont agree that the criminal record has much bite in real terms. Agents fold up shop and landlords find ways to pass their interests over to others, despite new sanctions on doing so. The same people crop up again under different names.

    The current trend being exampled by Nottingham is to use powers related to properties and businesses, not only are they harder to hide but also the civil judiciary seem to be more punitive and it is always about the money. Even to the extent of losing the agent his taxi driver’s licence.

    A PFEA prosecution will get you a banning order and a place on the database but the public have no access to that database, so there is limited use to it, unless you live in London, where you can check out your landlord and agent.

    The reason that criminals have moved into the renting business is because of the money they can make, that wasnt there 10 years ago so the sanctions also have to be about the money. Thats the key disincentive

    • Yes fair point, a reputable company would certainly be concerned with a criminal offence and any attendant bad publicity but for most part TROs like myself dont deal with people like that. We deal with dodgy bottom feeders using aliases and fake companies and for them it is only about the money.

      And I heartedly agree with you about exploring all legal options. That is my entire point. Throw everything you have at them. That is the way I have always operated. I’m not even saying dont bother with the PFEA, a prosecution under that legislation, whilst garnering paltry fines will now get the perpetrator on a banning order but by and large there are new and far more effective powers available in the last couple of years that enforcement teams are cottoning onto, as with Nottingham and Rent Repayment Orders for tenants, which is really the way forward

  18. The point with my Nottingham case was that we couldn’t use PFEA because at no point did the LL attempt to evict the tenants. That wasn’t his aim at all. He was quite happy for them to remain until the end of the university year/ contractc as they were paying him the best part of 30k between them.
    PFEA presumably requires the LL to be attempting to evict . The offences were linked to him purely harassing for his own reasons which were linked to a personal vendetta and the students standing up to his mysogenistic comments and entering their home to show next year’s tenants around without warning. The unfair trading regs adequately captured all of the failing to secure deposits, along with misleading them to making choices which they wouldn’t have made had he not lied about securing deposits and acting generally poorly by harassing them.

  19. The PFEA would normally be the channel to use. In relation to your guy, this bit in particular:-

    “the landlord of a residential occupier or an agent of the landlord shall be guilty of an offence if—
    (a)he does acts likely to interfere with the peace or comfort of the residential occupier or members of his household”

    So it could have been done but what interests me is the choice not to, There is of course always double jeopardy to consider as well.

    My thinking on this is since the introduction of Consumer Regs, Housing Act 2004 and Housing and Planning Act there are more and better ways to skin a cat. The PFEA has a role to play in relation to Banning Orders but the fines on their own have always been pathetic and whilst I acknowledge Richard Paris’s point above, about otherwise reputable companies not wanting a criminal offence I do stick to my point that most people you deal with it doesnt apply. Certainly not with your guy, who I’m sure found the financial penalty more sobering than a criminal offence being featured in page 4 of the local Newshopper, which is generally as far as such stories get.

  20. I agree Ben , there are many ways to skin a cat , albeit a shitty rabid mange ridden cat. In fact rat is better than cat in this case.

  21. I really do hope that both Paulo de Souza and Alisson Teixeira are connected to the crime but if it turns out not to be the case and the victim (Ryan Insalaco) could confirm this point. Having a linked-email does not mean one is a criminal, both Paulo de Souza and Alisson Teixeira may well turn out to be victims too. Many websites are guilty of not having property address and phone numbers and it does not mean that they are shady.

  22. The offences in the Nottingham case were pre banning order commencement date and would have been pursued under PFEA also had it been.

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