He has been renting from Mr Taft for 4 years, along with 4 other men in an unlicensed HMO, which as with all unlicensed HMOs works perfectly until the council’s licensing and enforcement team discover it, at which point Mr Taft turns ugly and starts harassing the occupants out, complaining that the tenants are to blame for complaining to the council about disrepair.
Lenny finds himself illegally evicted and all his possessions locked up in the house, including his tools and PPE which he needs for his construction work.
He is referred to Safer Renting by our partners in licensing and enforcement and the first thing we do, as we always do, is call the landlord and try to talk sense into him, persuading him of the folly of leaving himself open to prosecution, damages and Rent Repayment Orders.
As is usual his anger, stubbornness and sense of entitlement wins out and he refuses to let Lenny reoccupy, so we consider our options for reinstatement.
First port of call is to look atr whether we can use s6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which essentially means breaking him back in. We have a locksmith who does this work for us but you can only use force on what the tenant has exclusive possession of and being an HMO that means only his room door, not the communal front door.
So, can we persuade his house mates to allow access through the front door so we can get at his room? His housemates say no we cant, because Mr Taft has threatened them with illegal eviction if they let Lenny back in and given he has a proven track record on that front they aren’t going to cooperate, despite being sympathetic to Lenny’s predicament.
Plan B is an injunction to force Mr Taft to readmit his tenant but there are serious considerations:-
· Is he eligible for legal aid so a lawyer can do it?
· Can we find a legal aid lawyer with capacity?
· If not, is he eligible for fee remission so he wont have to pay the court fee?
· Given that an injunction kick starts a damages claim, will be able to source a legal aid or CFA lawyer further down the line to conduct the litigation?
· If he gets the injunction and then files to discontinue the claim, will he get hit with a demand for legal costs if Mr Taft employs lawyers early on?
· Is Lenny capable of doing it himself with Safer Renting assisting him?
And there is the nub of the problem, because Lenny isn’t eligible for legal aid and as a single man with no health problems he isn’t entitled to homelessness assistance either, beyond prevention and relief duties, so right now he is street homeless and will remain so unless we can get him back in.
So we decide we have to take a chance and work with him to apply for an emergency, ex parte injunction but the judge, although sympathetic wont grant one ex parte and wants the landlord present in court to argue his case and a hearing date is set for a week later.
Bear in mind that during this week, Lenny is still street homeless.
The hearing details are emailed to the landlord who responds saying he is abroad and wont be returning until the day of the hearing so the court pushes the date back another 4 days.
Lenny is a migrant worker and although his English is ok for routine conversation his ability to follow court proceedings is not good and Safer Renting, not being lawyers, have no rights of audience but given the sympathies of the judge he allows our caseworker to present Lenny’s side of the case.
Mr Taft tells the court that an injunction would not be appropriate because he has sold the property. The judge asks for proof and Mr Taft is given 10 minutes to go through his mobile phone before producing information on a spreadsheet. No conveyancing communications, nothing of real persuasion but it transpires that the judge actually is persuaded and decides not to issue an injunction but giving Lenny 14 days to file his damages claim if he wants to go forward.
But Lenny is not eligible for legal aid remember? so cannot source a solicitor and will have no costs protection if he loses. He cant present what will probably a day long hearing and whilst Safer Renting can often blag rights of audience in adjournments and short ‘to the point’ cases we would never get to represent a case of that length and complexity, even though we are experienced enough to compile the bundle and skeleton arguments.
We have explained the dilemma to Lenny and still being street homeless, he is aggrieved enough to want to proceed and see justice done, despite the fact that we have explained to him that he will probably have to be his own solicitor for a day and could come out of it with thousands of pounds in costs.
Pursuing the damages route is his only alternative but if Mr Taft secures a lawyer for the claim, Lenny will be ripped to shreds and be left with a hefty bill, just trying to seek justice.
If he doesn’t want the risk he just has to not file his damages claim but that will mean the illegal eviction will go unpunished, certainly in the short term, he will have lost his home and possessions and be just another homeless person and unable to work without his equipment when he has done absolutely nothing wrong.
And the saddest part of Lenny’s story is that his predicament and the challenges he faces are routine. We see these quandaries all day long, in case after case. Tenant after tenant. human after human.
For people who are entitled to full homelessness assistance they at least get temporary accommodation from the council, a comfort of sorts but only about half of our cases fit that. The rest are like Lenny, on the street, cant get legal help and cant access justice.
We can look towards an RRO as recompense but he wont see a tribunal until well into next year, by which time he will have lost faith in the system and as with many other similar cases just moves on with their lives and forgets about it.
This final factor is one of the biggest reasons that so few prosecutions under the Protection from Eviction Act go through, you just lose contact with the tenant in the time it takes between the offence and getting the case in the criminal court.
Illegal eviction is the ultimate theft, not because of the obvious and immediate effects but because a person’s sense of security is taken from them and often their children and their belief that justice is there for them is also taken away at the same time.
By Ben Reeve Lewis