A curious title for an article I grant you.
“Of course people take illegal eviction seriously” I hear you say but I’m going to explain to you that this is not the case, by talking about the role of the police, the judiciary and parliament, so hang on to your hats.
Firstly, by way of context, its handy to know that Safer Renting work in partnership with the licensing and enforcement teams of 6 London boroughs (A seventh, Newham, was added just yesterday) and we have dealt with 152 illegal evictions (2 since the weekend) in just fourteen months, with a 42% increase since Lockdown began.
So illegal eviction is hardly a rare phenomenon. Extrapolate that over 32 London boroughs and you are probably looking at close on 1,000 in a year in London alone and those are just the ones that get picked up by organisations such as ours. We cant begin to guess at how many go unreported.
These are also just illegal eviction referrals. In many instances more than one renter has been evicted in any one reported case.
It’s a serious and pervasive problem.
It’s a commonly heard complaint that when called to protect a renter, the police will often refuse to attend, saying landlord and tenant disputes are civil matters and nothing to do with them.
If they do turn up they usually give the wrong advice, even siding with the landlord and in by no means rare cases, will actually assist the landlord with the eviction.
Regular readers know that we have been tackling this problem by designing a training course for the police and there are signs its really working in the Waltham Forest council district but so far nowhere else, where the main response is still a refusal to attend.
The criminal judiciary:
Contrary to the police’s understanding, harassment and illegal eviction are criminal offences, punishable by a potentially unlimited fine and 2 years in prison and yet the reports coming back from the court records, shows that magistrates view illegal eviction about as seriously as the police do.
These are some snapshot reports of illegal eviction from just the last year alone:-
· Flintshire landlord Mr Gruffydd Edwards fined £1,040
· An un-named Northumbrian landlord fined £265.
· Oxford landlord Riasat Ali fined £180
· Swansea landlord Sean MacManus fined £105 for illegally evicting his tenant and depositing all of his possessions on his parent’s drive.
· Ms Suleaudu found guilty at Bristol Magistrates Court and fined £1,500
· Stoke landlord Amanda Burrow, fined £1,600 which included legal costs, so the level of the fine would be considerably lower.
· Clacton landlord Lisa Bottone, 12-month community service.
· Mr Sajjad Ahmed of Derby sentenced to a 16 week curfew.
Not a single one of those awards anywhere even close to what it should potentially be
Peterborough landlord, Jeffrey Reeve, who carried out an illegal eviction last year and whose tenant had to be hospitalised with hypothermia after sleeping outside, was given a pathetic conditional discharge by local Magistrates, a scandalous penalty.
The financial awards in some of these cases amount to around 1 week’s rent and considerably cheaper than the cost of obtaining a possession order, so you can assume that many of these landlords view the risk of a prosecution as being merely a sound financial decision.
These criminal sanctions stand out in stark relief to penalties awarded for the same offences in the civil courts, which can regularly run up to £20,000 or even £30,000 as a matter of course.
If the police and the criminal courts don’t take illegal eviction seriously what is this a sign of?
Well, its a sign that parliament also doesn’t take it seriously, because parliament devises the laws.
A potential unlimited fine and two years in prison sounds like a reasonable enough sanction, until you look at other penalties.
Shoplifting more than £200 worth of goods carries a potential 7 year prison sentence and illegally downloading films or music comes with a possible 10 year sentence.
So what are we to glean from these disparities? That parliament and in a sense society, holds a penniless single mum nicking from M&S or potentially any one of us, watching a ripped copy of the latest Tom Cruise flick, to be a worse villain than somebody stealing a person’s home and its isn’t just the theft of a home in most cases.
Illegally evicted renters often lose all of their possessions, which are routinely destroyed to get rid of evidence of occupation. Such possessions regularly including passports and other essential documents needed for procuring new accommodation and applying for benefits.
And lets not forget probably the biggest theft of all, the stealing of a person’s sense of security, safety and often mental health.
Illegal eviction does far much more than just take someone’s home away.
Financial loss to M&S or the Disney Corporation is nothing compared to what happens to the minds of people who one day were eating a dinner in front of the TV and the next, having to ask to borrow someone’s phone in a local park just so they can call the council, Shelter, CAB for advice on what to do now.
Safer Renting are about to initiate a campaign to change this mindset and encourage government to look again at the penalties for illegal eviction and to urge the judiciary to do more than sentence an offender to community service or a daft, meaningless curfew.
We also want to encourage local authorities to seek damages against the perpetrators of illegal eviction for the costs of re-housing the displaced occupiers, which isn’t cheap. Why should the public purse, which at the end of the day is all of us, be paying to sort out a mess created by people who view property ownership as overriding all other considerations and rights?
Penalties for illegal eviction need to be swift, hard and eye-wateringly expensive but they wont be until society has a close look at it’s moral priorities.
**Addendum. 2 hours after posting this article I read a piece on Landlordzone about a tenant who has just been jailed for 14 months for attacking his landlord. Now I know that legislation on actual bodily harm is different from the Protection from Eviction Act but in many cases of illegal eviction the tenant is similarly assaulted by a landlord but never receives a custodial sentence and is rarely if ever even charged by the police.
By Ben Reeve-Lewis
By Ben Reeve Lewis