by | Oct 4, 2020 | Safer Renting

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Tenancy Relations Officers are the local authority figures charged with the responsibility of investigating allegations of harassment and illegal eviction and doing all the leg work to build a successful prosecution, the final coup de grace being delivered by barristers brought in for the hearing.

What this entails in practice is the initial taking of the complaint, negotiating with perpetrators to back them off, often by visiting the property and going nose to nose with some pretty threatening characters, assessing the legal breaches and potential for prosecution. Taking witness statements from the tenants and anyone else involved, call the perpetrator in for an interview under caution, conducting the interview and typing up to results.

A TRO will often be charged with tracking down the perpetrators and serving them with the summons, before appearing in court as a chief witness.

TROs in different areas might also perform additional functions. For instance, Safer Renting’s team of 7 TROs, assist tenants to obtain injunctions to stop harassment and effect reinstatement following illegal evictions. We attend court and seek adjournments, suspensions of warrants and setting aside orders where the landlord or agent have lied to the court. We also represent tenants in Rent Repayment Order hearings and help them claim Deposit Protection Penalties.

All this alongside being the renter’s personal supporter, adviser and confidante. Commonly renters subject to these activities are marginalised, may be isolated by lack of spoken English or disadvantaged by substance abuse or mental health problems. It’s a factor of the shadow private rented sector that the criminal landlord and agent community don’t pick on people who can fight back, their business model being based solely on greed and contempt for other human beings.

So tough work for TROs all in all but the problem is, whilst s6 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, the TROs chief tool, provides for the prosecutions to be carried out by the local authority, TROs themselves, have no actual powers whatsoever.

They have no powers of entry, no powers to serve designated notices other than those given to them in the council’s job description. There are no statutory notices that a TRO can serve, they don’t even have the powers to demand information in the ways that their peers in environmental health do.

One of Safer Renting’s campaign recommendations for the coming year is for government to give TROs tools they need to do the job and in particular, we are calling for a change to powers under section 235 of the Housing Act 2004.

S235 is just about the most useful investigation tool available to local authority enforcement powers and whilst the Act itself states “A person authorised in writing by a local housing authority may exercise the power conferred by subsection”, it is only in respect of the Housing Act 2004 that this applies. We want to see a simple change made to s235 (1) (a) & (b) to include “Investigations under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977”.

This truncated version of the Act gives you an idea of how useful it is:-

235Power to require documents to be produced

(1)A person authorised in writing by a local housing authority may exercise the power conferred by subsection (2) in relation to documents reasonably required by the authority—

(a) to produce any documents which—

(i) are specified or described in the notice, or fall within a category of document which is specified or described in the notice, and

(ii )are in his custody or under his control, and

(b )to produce them at a time and place so specified and to a person so specified.

(3) The notice must include information about the possible consequences of not complying with the notice.

(6)In this section “document” includes information recorded otherwise than in legible form, and in relation to information so recorded, any reference to the production of a document is a reference to the production of a copy of the information in legible form.

(7)In this section “relevant person” means, in relation to any premises, a person within any of the following paragraphs—

(a)a person who is, or is proposed to be, the holder of a licence under Part 2 or 3 in respect of the premises, or a person on whom any obligation or restriction under such a licence is, or is proposed to be, imposed,

(b)a person who has an estate or interest in the premises,

(c)a person who is, or is proposing to be, managing or having control of the premises,

(d)a person who is, or is proposing to be, otherwise involved in the management of the premises,

(e)a person who occupies the premises.

So essentially, a s235 notices requires the person served with it, to provide any documents relating to the property and its rental, such person being anyone from the tenant, through the various agents, licence holders, agents and owners.

S236 then tells us the penalties for failing to comply:-

“(1) A person commits an offence if he fails to do anything required of him by a notice under section 235.

(2)  In proceedings against a person for an offence under subsection (1) it is a defence that he had a reasonable excuse for failing to comply with the notice.

(3) A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

(4) A person commits an offence if he intentionally alters, suppresses or destroys any document which he has been required to produce by a notice under section 235.

A hefty fine for failing comply or falsifying documents provided.

It is madness that on the one hand the local authority is given the powers to prosecute under the Protection from Eviction Act but doesn’t provide any powers for the officers charged with carrying out the investigations, leaving the TRO often merely blagging it. Playing bluff with criminal prosecution powers of the local authority, which is just plain stupid.

A game I’ve been playing for 30 years. Look bold, look confident, use council headed notepaper and don’t let them know that you are a paper tiger in so many senses.

We want the PFEA changed to place a duty on local authorities to prosecuted under the Act and we want s235 widened to give TROs the powers they need to be on par with EHOs, planning enforcement and Trading Standards officers but we also want to see proper commitment to this, not to just turn prosecution into a power and then blame the cash strapped local authority for not carrying out a statutory duty.

This recommendation also sits alongside our recommendation to change sentencing guidelines for magistrates to make sure that an “Unlimited fine” and a prison sentence of up to “2 years”, set out in the PFEA means exactly that, not a £400 fine, community service or a conditional discharge.

Bring all that in together and TROs will have proper teeth, as well council enforcement as a whole being much more effective and joined up in approach.

 by Ben Reeve Lewis

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About Cambridge House Safer Renting

The Cambridge House Safer Renting team present the ‘go-to’ blog on the world of the Shadow Private Rented Sector.

We monitor the world of rogue landlord and agent activity, publicise developments, circulate innovative ideas, keep readers abreast of changes in laws and regulations, raising awareness of criminal trends and scams, celebrate successful actions and interview people working in the field, connecting up anyone involved, from tenants and their advisers, to enforcement officers, lawyers and journalists.

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