I’ve written before about the scandalous lack of verve shown by magistrates in housing enforcement cases, compared to their counterparts in the civil judiciary, where landlords found guilty of illegal eviction who potentially face unlimited fines and 2 years in prison, so often walk with a fine of a couple of hundred pounds, community service or just a conditional discharge.
After a lifetime in this work I confess I have for some years looked towards civil solutions as far as possible because of the potential for much greater Financial sanctions. Getting a landlord or agent into court for anything takes a mammoth effort, hours of officer time and resources. Nobody likes to bust a gut to punish a perpetrator to see them walk from court with a smirk on their face.
I’m not alone among my peers in my lack of enthusiasm for criminal sanctions but sometimes even I admit that this can actually be the most appropriate route.
I read this week an article on the NRLA website venting their concern at the lack of enforcement activity among local authorities and claiming that the highest rates of enforcement occurs in boroughs without additional or selective licensing. In predictable NRLA style, they cite this as yet another example offering irrefutable proof that licensing doesn’t work.
There are myriad reasons why enforcement rates are low and it isn’t just staffing levels alone. Few outside of enforcement realise the amount of work that goes into just bringing one landlord to account. Cases can take years from complaint to court, for a range of reasons, not least of which is the sheer unwieldiness of legislation, the slipperiness of many of the targets, exploiting loopholes, using aliases, confusing chains of management responsibility and disappearing witnesses, bought off by those same offenders.
As is the case with police prosecutions you often find that the issue or incident that the subject has been punished for and which is a matter of public record often represents a tiny fraction of what the enforcement officers know they were doing but for various, mainly bureaucratic and procedural reasons had to be left out.
So when you do finally get clear evidence of multiple wrongdoings and get one of these people in court you might be forgiven for hoping that the judiciary might be a bit more supportive.
Back in 2019 Telford and Wrekin Council were the first in the UK to obtain a Banning Order of 5 years against a local landlord David Beattie for a range of offences.
For readers unfamiliar with this recent introduction to the enforcement officer’s arsenal, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 introduced Banning Orders for the worst offenders in the landlord community, allowing a council to ban a landlord or agent from operating in the lettings industry for at least 12 months and with no upper limit on time.
Where a banning order is breached a local authority has the option of issuing a Civil Penalty Notice or taking out a criminal prosecution which if successful carries with it the potential for a prison sentence and/or a fine.
Banning orders are not used lightly and are reserved for the worst offenders, so the fact that Telford were successful against Beattie is an indicator of how bad an egg he was and their choice to pursue criminal action rather than civil makes sense
But Beattie breached the terms of his banning order and pleaded guilty to it back in August 2021.
Sentencing was set for the 18th October, where the magistrate donned their black silk handkerchief and handed down this most solemn of judgements…………….a fine of £1,000 and a £1,500 contribution to the council’s legal costs.
And this shameful fiasco didn’t stop there. He was also served with notices under s235 of the Housing Act 2004, requiring him to provide all available documentation for 5 houses he was renting. Failure to do so can result in an unlimited fine but for his failure to comply with the notices the Magistrates fined him just £100 per notice.
So let’s look at that in summary, lest you miss what is going on there..
A landlord with a list of offences as long as your arm gets banned from letting for 5 years. He fought this case in the tribunal but lost on the evidence.
He gets prosecuted for breaching the banning order and admits he has done so in the magistrates court, who have the option of a prison sentence and an unlimited fine, alongside the potential unlimited fines for failing to provide documents when requested on each of the 5 separate properties.
Instead he is merely ordered to pay just £1,000 fine and £1,500 towards the council’s costs of £7,500 to get him there. Meaning the council were £5,500 down in trying to protect the public from a serial offender.
Oh and it would be remiss of me not to mention the £100 victim surcharge he was also ordered to pay
I could speculate on why the magistrates chose to treat his offences as no more serious than shoplifting but it would probably be unprofessional of me, due to the amount of swearing it would entail.
As I already mentioned, where a banning order has been breached the council has the option of a criminal prosecution or imposing a £30,000 Civil Penalty Notice. Given the flagrant disregard this landlord showed for the banning order you would think that a criminal prosecution would have been the most appropriate route but when the response of the magistrates is so dismissive and unsupportive any sane person would ask themselves “Why bother?”
I doubt Mr Beattie would have been smiling at a £30,000 CPN and the local authority can keep the money to fund enforcement.
This case does nothing for my faith in justice.
All too often in council press releases, councilor’s trot out the same line “This prosecution sends a powerful message to landlords everywhere” but the powerful message it sends is “Hey don’t worry about trivial things like banning orders and don’t worry about council enforcement”.
I have already said that the principle for banning orders is that that aren’t to be used lightly and are to be reserved for the most egregious of individuals. What is the point of them when the judiciary don’t support those charged with policing the private rented sector?
By Ben Reeve Lewis