The Harassment and illegal eviction are criminal offences under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. Legal action is brought by the council and the tenant becomes a witness in the local authority prosecution.
At the same time, they are also civil offences, known as ‘Breach of Covenant for Quiet Enjoyment” and a renter can take their own action as well as the council prosecution, so the offending landlord or agent can receive a criminal record and be fined and be ordered to pay damages to the tenant in a civil claim.
Civil claims are generally heard much faster than criminal ones but there are two main barriers to renters taking their own action.
First is the difficulty procuring the services of a legal aid solicitor.
In April 2019 the Law Society Gazette published disturbing figures revealing that
· 134 out of 348 local authority districts have no legal aid housing services.
· 81 districts have only 1 legal aid housing service.
· 29 districts have 2.
· 17 have 3, and
· 37 have more than 3.
All amounting to the shocking fact that over half the population of England and Wales lives in a local authority area with either 1 or no legal aid housing service provider. So even when evidence is clear of harassment or illegal eviction people interviewed for Safer Renting’s upcoming report into the parlous state of the “Shadow Private Rented Sector” repeatedly cite an inability to procure the service of over-stretched legal aid housing lawyers.
Secondly there is a massive disparity between criminal sentencing and civil awards indicating that in the vast majority of cases reported, the criminal judiciary issue paltry fines compared to awards made by their civil justice colleagues.
News feeds collating reports of criminal sentencing regularly quote figures below £1,000 for fines, with victim surcharges in just double figures, with perhaps a few hours community service thrown in, even when the perpetrator is found to have used violence and intimidation.
The largest fine known to Safer Renting over the past year, is a Sheffield City Council prosecution of a landlord, which resulted in a £3,700 fine for an illegal eviction but Oxford landlord Riasat Ali who harassed and illegally evicted his tenant was fined in the Magistrates Court £180 for the eviction and £300 for a campaign of harassment
Swansea landlord Sean MacManus was fined just £105 for illegally evicting his tenant and dumping all of his possessions on his parent’s drive whilst Peterborough landlord, Jeffrey Reeve, who carried out an illegal eviction and whose tenant had to be hospitalised with hypothermia after sleeping outside, was given a conditional discharge by local Magistrates.
Contrast such fines with these civil awards for similar offences:-
· Smith v. Khan (2018) a civil prosecution for harassment of £14,080 or:-
· Fakhari v. Newman £16,205, or
· Suchard v. Fu £32,125
Or Tyrone Holmes, who in 2018 was ordered to pay £12,000 for burning his tenant’s clothes when she ran into rent arrears
Perpetrators of harassment and illegal eviction can now potentially be given unlimited fines and a prison sentence of up to two years, so why do the awards of the civil judiciary seem to indicate that they take these matters more seriously than their criminal peers?
I’m not arguing against criminal prosecutions, especially as they now lead to a banning order and a place on either the national or the London rogue database, as well as the declaration that the offender is not a fit and proper person but we would like to see the criminal judiciary do more than wag a disapproving finger.
Here’s a radical idea. One that Safer Renting is keen to promote.
Part 4 of the Housing Act 2004 allows a local authority to take over management control of a property for a period of 12 months, during which the rent is paid to them, where either the property conditions are atrocious or it doesn’t have a licence and there is no prospect of the landlord getting one.
Its called an Interim Management Order (IMO) and I can see no reason for not simply extending the scope of them to include situations where the landlord harasses or illegally evicts their tenants.
In the vast majority of allegations, the aim is to drive the perpetrator from the property, either because of unwanted attention of local authority enforcement, rent arrears or to simply evade due process because they cant be bothered or they think the procedure should not apply to them. Such practices are not only unlawful but they have a debilitating effect on the lives of the victims, many of whom live in fear.
What more effective solution can there be than to deprive the landlord of control of the property and the concomitant rental income? Both of which would have a suitably sobering effect, rather than facing a magistrate and coming out with a pocket money fine and the sense that there is no real deterrent to doing it again.
Prior to the introduction of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 Rent Repayment Orders were only available for unlicensed properties. Government simply added harassment, illegal eviction, forced entry and ignoring a banning or prohibition order to the mix. The same logic could be applied to IMOs. It wouldn’t take a major re-write, just merely adding more offences to the already existing list.
Such a change would provide a very effective tool in rogue landlord enforcement.
We don’t need a huge raft of new legislation just a few savvy tweaks.
By Ben Reeve-Lewis
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