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Can landlords be liable to neighbours for tenants from Hell?

Not in my back yard please!

The topic of this blog post is similar in many ways to the post I did on Monday about nightmare co-tenants (which has attracted some great comments by the way).

The neighbours from hell

What do you do if you find that the rented property next door to yours suddenly has the tenants from Hell living there? Loud parties every night, screaming and yelling at all hours, piles of empty bottles in the front garden, and your four year old is asking questions about the embarrassing sounds coming through his bedroom wall.

You tell the landlord about the problems you are having, and he does absolutely nothing about it.

In a way you are worse off than the tenant in my ‘problems with other tenants’ post, as it is much easier to move away if you are renting a room, than if you are living in your own home.

The bad news is that you cannot blame or claim against the landlord. One human being cannot be held responsible for the actions of another human being, which is why your wife’s creditors cannot sue you for her debts. So you can’t threaten action against your landlord, if his tenants are giving you grief.

Or can you?

I heard a very interesting talk recently at a CLT Conference, by barrister Alison Meacher. She was discussing the question of landlords liability for the acts of his tenants in the context of the old case of Rylands v. Fletcher.

Rylands v. Fletcher?

As every law student will know, Rylands v. Fletcher is about a landowner being held liable for damage done by something which ‘escapes’ from his land. Can noise and nuisance from tenants which landlords fail to control be considered in this context?

It seems as if in some circumstances a landlord can be held liable in tort (for non lawyers, this is a type of claim in civil law where someone suffers a wrong and can make a claim even though there is no contract). This is where a landlord can be held to have ‘adopted’ a nuisance by failing to take reasonable steps to abate a nuisance caused by his tenant which he is aware, or ought to be aware of.

She looked particular at a case called Octavia Hill Housing v. Brumby and the judgement of Mr Justice Mackay, quoting Lord Atkin in Sedleigh-Denfield v O’Callaghan :

“It seems to me clear that if a man permits an offensive thing on his premises to continue to offend, that is if he knows that it is operating offensively, is able to prevent it and omits to prevent it he is permitting the nuisance to continue; in other words he is continuing it.”

The cases cited by Alison in her talk all related to public sector houses (apart from the Sedleigh case which is about water damage), so I don’t know what the position would be in the private sector.

Does anyone know whether there are any circumstances in which a landlord has been held responsible for his tenants anti social behaviour, for example in circumstances where he has refused to do anything (such as bring proceedings to evict them)?  There is I suppose Ribee v. Norrie which is about a  a tenant causing damage to a neighbouring property by fire.

However even if there is the possibility of liability, I suspect that it is not going to be a practical solution for outraged neighbours of anti social tenants, any time soon.

Photo by chadmagiera

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Important note. If you are reading an old post, remember that the law may have changed since it was written.

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10 Responses to Can landlords be liable to neighbours for tenants from Hell?

  1. Thanks Frances. I see from that thread that in the Octavia case the Court of Appeal refused leave to appeal.

    However the cases all seem to be about social housing. What do you think is the situation in the private sector? Is there any material difference? Being as the landlord cannot be considered a public body in any way.

  2. I dont deal with neighbour nuisance but it doesnt stop people ringing me on it.

    Where the problem tenant is a social one then it is relatively easy. I usualy find the housing officers ok about dealing with it but the complainant doesnt know the tenure of the offender.

    Where the offender is a private tenant its virtually a non starter.

    Best bet is usally the council’s Anti-Social Behaviour Team and I always find our local Community Support Officers are brilliant too. I notice from a post by HMO Landlady on another thread that she gives the CSOs keys to her HMOs so they can deal with disputes, a great idea.

    CSOs are a brilliant invention, they tend to know everybody in the community and can usually resolve things by talking. Not enough credit is given to them I often feel.

  3. Tessa,

    I don’t think the relevant law on adoption of a nuisance should be affected by the social (or not) status of the landlord.

    I recall (don’t have the case to hand now – I ran across it in the early 90’s so it must be quite old) that Rylands v Fletcher was once applied where the “dangerous thing” that had been allowed to gather on the land was “gypsies”.

    Whether, and to what extent, Rylands is really a species of nuisance or not is still (I think) something of a matter of debate in the common law world.

  4. Hi Tessa,
    Great post.

    When you say that one human being cannot be held liable for the behaviour of another human being, in this context are you referring to Scotland’s Anti Social Behaviour legislation? When used to introduced Landlord Licencing, I believe it was challenged by landlords of the Scottish NLA, mainly because of lack of consultancy. It was a successful challenge because the Judge determined that the legislation breached the European Convention on human rights by holding the landlord responsible, including if there was a history of anti-sicl behaviour when he came to apply for a landlord licence. That decision was adopted here and the Scottish system has been widely mooted as a reason for not adopting licencing here.

    Having said that, what about the human rights of the law-abiding neighbours? What about the contract entered into by the landlord and the tenant? Even though our RTM company now owns the freehold, it doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t have any contract with renting tenants.

    Also, what if we tried to forfeit the lease if we were subjected to continual anti-social behavour of a tenant? Would human rights legislation work against us because landlords are deemed not responsible for the actions of their tenants?

    So many questions and my apologies for going slightly off-topic there but my research seems to indicate that it’s all linked!

    Kind Regards
    Leasehold Life

  5. Hi Frances, I believe that Landlords should not be help responsible. If the neighbours wish to complain they should complain at first to the tenants making the noise, then if it continues report them to the landlord and inform the tenants their landlord is going to deal with the problem.
    If the problem continues, I believe you should be able to threaten the tenants themselves, the landlord should not be held responsible.

  6. First, it is worth noting that Brumby is not about a landlord being liable for the acts of its tenants. It is about landlord liability for nuisance caused by third parties in the common (retained) parts of a building affecting one of the tenants.

    Second the landlord most certainly can be fixed with a nuisance emanating from a property demises to a tenant or indeed lessee. Not ASB, the precedent cases are against behaviour issues, but a nuisance caused by a failure to repair (a leak, or falling wall) is taken as being adopted or continued by the landlord if the landlord has an express or implied right of entry to carry out repairs, even if the repairs are the leaseholder or tenant’s responsibility under the tenancy agreement or lease. A line of cases stemming from Mint v Good holds this. Not an easy claim to bring, but do-able. I’ve run them successfully

  7. Lippiatt v South Gloucestershire Council [1999] was the Gypsy case. Going back a few years, in the case of Thompson-Schwab v Costaki [1956] P and his family lived in a quiet residential street. One of his neighbours often brought male ‘visitors’ home with her who were quite noisy. P complained that this conduct depreciated the value of his home and interfered with the comfort and convenience of himself and his family. A private nuisance was proved. The same was true in the earlier case of Christie v Davey [1893] where a music teacher who often gave lessons a home, and held music parties was unreasonably disturbing her neighbours.

    In Lippiatt, referred to by Francis, the Court of Appeal said that an occupier of land could be liable in nuisance for the activities of his licensees even though it was the Plaintiffs land. The point was that, on the facts, the defendant council had let people gather on its land. It was that act of tolerating their presence and not forcing them to move on when the complaints started that potentially rendered the council liable in nuisance.

    The essential elements are (1) Did the Defendant cause the harm? 2) Was the harm reasonably foreseeable? 3) Did the Defendant act reasonably? and 4) Was the Defendant at fault? If the answer to each question is yes, and the Defendant was negligent in not doing anything about the complaints then we have an interesting case.

  8. As a landlord I’ve previously advised tenants to talk to the noise nuisance people at the council and I’ve had a chat with the tenants responsible. If it had persisted (which it didn’t) then I would have issued a section 21.

  9. Stephen, Thompson-Schwab and Christie were (relatively) straightforward nuisance cases, brought against the occupier of the adjoining land who was also the cause (or failed to abate) the nuisance.

    Lippiat really is the exception, and even then, it wasn’t tenants or licencees. Hussain v Lancaster CC [1999] 2 WLR 1142, Smith v Scott and others [1973] 1 Ch 314, and Mowan v Wandsworth [2000] EWCA Civ 357 are all throughly against landlord liability for tenant’s actions in nuisance and in negligence.

    For some more discussion on the negligence issue, see NL posts on X&Y v Hounslow here
    and here



About the post author:

Tessa Shepperson

Tessa is a lawyer and specialises in creating products and services which help landlords and letting agents learn and understand landlord & tenant law. For example, she runs the Landlord Law website (now in its 14th year) and is a director of Easy Law Training Ltd and Your Law Store. Tessa also sits on the Property Redress Scheme Council. When not working she enjoys reading, cooking and messing around on the computer. You can also find her on Google

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Tessa is an English lawyer specialising in residential landlord and tenant law.

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