In the past few months Safer Renting have been witnessing a spike in cases where the landlord or agent has illegally evicted the renter and stolen all their possessions.
Don’t get me wrong, this has always happened to an extent but its unusual to see it becoming more routine.
Let me qualify, I’m not talking about the common malpractice of seizing a person’s possessions and holding them to ransom, saying “Pay me the rent you owe and you can have your TV back”. That’s called “Trespass to goods” or “Detinue” and has been a designated civil offence since the advent of the Torts (interference with goods) Act 1977.
I’m talking plain theft, which the Theft Act 1968 defines as being where a person “dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.”
Trespass to goods occurs when the person says “I’ve got your stuff but you can have it back, when/if”.
In the case of our landlords, they chuck the person out, take all their belongings but pretend they know nothing about the person or the goods.
Now theft, as defined, is a police matter but as usual, when they hear the words landlord and tenant in a complaint, they switch off, regardless of whether or not what has happened constituted a general criminal act, even in cases of physical assault, I’ve known police refuse to investigate.
To utter the words “Landlord and Tenant” to police, is akin to throwing on a magic cloak of invisibility, where the crime miraculously disappears.
In a recent case we advised the tenant to report the theft to the police who flatly refused to even record it as a crime, so we advised her to register a complaint that they were refusing to record it but like so many others in the same position, she lost interest and just got on with her life.
To be fair to police, in order to investigate, they need evidence to chase down. Being a criminal offence you need to fit the criminal standard of evidence,” Beyond reasonable doubt”. The Crown Prosecution Service wont initiate a case without good proof and in the case of criminal landlords, they don’t take the goods while anyone else is watching and they don’t store them anywhere that would be discovered, presuming of course they haven’t just destroyed the less valuable items.
So evidentially what you have is an allegation that a person used to own certain possessions and now they don’t. No witnesses, no discovered goods, denial by landlord and agent means police and tenant, or for that matter Safer Renting, have little to go on, which is why the Met Police clear up rate on burglaries hasn’t been much above about 6% for many years.
What about proof of tenancy? I hear you say, well stealing the goods usually involves the tenancy agreement as well, if they even had one in the first place and due to the dubious nature of so many of the lettings in the criminal end of the PRS renters don’t necessarily show up on council tax, particularly if it’s an HMO and where rent is paid cash in hand without benefit of a receipt, again common practice, you can often find it difficult to even prove the person ever lived there.
Even having bank statements and utility bills, whilst providing good evidence of renting, doesn’t address the lack of evidence or the theft of the goods.
Even if the landlord admits the person was renting from them, the account is usually that they thought they had gone because they went to the property and it was empty of all possessions, evidenced by the fact that there are indeed no belongings.
By far and away, loss of expensive items apart, what impacts the most upon renters who have lost their possessions in this way, is the loss of passports and other documentation essential for claiming benefits, homelessness assistance and dealing with the Home Office.
The loss of these items creates incalculable havoc and is usually the main cause of concern and stress.
Many of the unfortunate residents of the shadow private rented sector, in London at least, are migrant workers of one form or another, where their passport and Home Office documents and correspondence are probably the single most valuable thing they have, in fact their whole life can grind to a halt for want of essential documentation.
Benefits can be claimed and assistance provided but bureaucracy being what it is, many illegally evicted people end up sleeping in cars or in the local park for weeks whilst they try to get some form of proof confirming identity and entitlement.
Bear in mind that what also goes missing will be bank cards, so they have no access to their money, phone chargers, so the mobile goes flat, meaning they cant call the relevant departments and nobody trying to assist can get hold of them.
Laptops are often on the list of missing articles and those laptops will also contain a wealth of information confirming identity and provenance, as well as essential course work where the renter is a student and if you have little or no spoken English, everything suddenly gets 100 times harder.
If you are looking to get an injunction for re-entry you need proof of occupancy. Without that and in the light of the landlord or agent claiming to have never seen them before, you are probably on a hiding to nothing.
The renter is left effectively naked. They have lost everything they own, everything of importance. Nobody saw the perpetrator and the system is not open to anyone who cant prove who they are.
That is the pernicious nature of this concerning trend.
Safer Renting argue that illegal eviction is the ultimate theft, its not like stealing a car or a mobile, as troublesome as that can be. People lose their homes, their possessions and their sense of security which may never return, especially where there are children involved who may be even more adversely affected by it and whose schooling may also suffer, along with their parent’s mental wellbeing.
We are promoting amendments to sentencing guidelines for magistrates, so that they impose more than petty fines and community service, where the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 allows for potentially unlimited fines and 2 years in prison, as against the potential 7 years for shoplifting and 10 years for illegally downloading films or music.
Illegal eviction needs to be treated as a crime against humanity and the perpetrators appropriately punished.