By Sarah Collins, Safer Renting
*the names in this article have been changed
Last November, Jack returned home after a holiday to find that the lock to his front door had been changed and some of his belongings were scattered across the hallway. When he walked upstairs, he found that his room had been broken into and was completely empty. His friend Craig reported that the lock to his door had also been changed after his landlord had requested entry to his room to fix a radiator. Both tenants had been living in the property for over a year, Jack having lived there for five years and had always paid the rent, even after the landlord had latterly demanded it in cash without giving receipts. They were angry and upset to find that they now didn’t have access to their belongings and their keys didn’t work in the lock. After contacting Waltham Forest Council licensing and enforcement team their case was referred to us at Safer Renting, an organisation that contracts with the team to provide independent advice and advocacy for tenants of rogue landlords.
Jack and Craig were living in a House in Multiple Occupation- a property where five or people, from two or more households share facilities such as a kitchen, bathroom and living space. To rent out a property in this way, landlords are required by law to hold an HMO license, due to the additional fire safety standards that must be met for houses being shared by large numbers of unrelated adults. Jack and Craig’s landlord had failed to license the property and had now tried to evict Jack and Craig without issuing a valid legal notice. Jack and Craig’s deposits had not been protected and they had never seen a gas safety certificate or energy performance certificate for the property.
Safer Renting’s first strategy was to negotiate the return of their belongings with the help of the police. The next step was to support the tenants to make a claim for compensation for the way that they had been treated- the tenants wanted justice for the huge disruption to their lives that had been caused by the illegal eviction. However, when making a county court claim for civil damages, tenants pursuing justice face a number of barriers. Claims can be lengthy, complex and expensive, as they require the services of a solicitor, which tenants must pay for privately unless they qualify for legal aid. Safer Renting therefore assisted Jack and Craig to follow a different route, created by the Housing Act 2004 and the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which allow tenants to apply to the First Tier Residential Property Tribunal for a Rent Repayment Order. A Rent Repayment order made by the tribunal compels a landlord to repay their tenants’ rent, where a housing offence such as managing an unlicensed HMO or carrying out an illegal eviction has been committed.
In order to successfully net a rent repayment order, the offences must be substantiated to the criminal standard of evidence – proven beyond reasonable doubt. For that reason, as well as the fact that rent repayment orders remain ‘new’ as far as legal remedies go, the results of applications can be unpredictable. Even though there is a steadily growing body of case law around RROS it can be hard for caseworkers to be sure the evidence they have collected and presented will meet the exacting threshold. As the tenants had paid a lot of their rent in cash, and hadn’t received receipts, this added a layer of difficulty to meeting the evidential standard. As a result, it took months of compiling witness statements, printing copies of emails and texts, and collating photographs to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt, that the property was an unlicensed HMO and an illegal eviction had taken place.
The cases went to the tribunal at 10 Alfred Place on the 19th July. Heard together, the panel considered a whopping 6 hours of oral evidence from parties on both side, with the tenants represented by caseworkers from Safer Renting. On the 1st August 2019 the Tribunal made their determination, accepting the applicants testimony and awarding them £3737.70 and £5995.29 of their rent back respectively. This success illustrates the impact that multi agency working can have on tackling rogue landlords and the justice that tenants can achieve without having to pay costly legal fees for county court claims!