Local Authority held liable for damage done by tenant

mole-valley-colin-smithThere is a very interesting County Court decision reported on the Nearly Legal Blog and also in the local press here.

The facts

The landlord, Mrs Minter, signed up to a local authority scheme where they provided her with tenants from their social housing list and a deposit bond.

They assured her that they would only recommend ‘good’ tenants, and that her property would be returned to her in the same condition it was when the tenant moved in.

Ha!

The tenant recommended to Mrs Minter, one Lisa Alexander, turned out to be a nightmare tenant who left a trail of destruction in her wake, the full cost of rectifying which came to some £8,000.

Mrs Minter, not a lady to take this lying down, duly sued the Council, Mole Valley District Council, in the Reigate County Court and emerged victorious.  She was awarded £4860.27 plus interest of £1153.21 and small claims expenses.

One of the factors in her favour was that she had overheard a housing officer saying to Ms Alexander in a separate room: “we don’t want another Abinger.”  This, she discovered later, referred to the condition in which Ms Alexander had left a previous property at 18 Abinger Close.  The report in the paper states:

Its landlord described it as ‘filthy and disgusting’ and called a cooker he had installed a year earlier as ‘in a terrible state and beyond repair’.

Invoices showed it cost him £25,000 to repair the damage, which included a ‘ruined kitchen’ and rubbish in the garden.

Notwithstanding this, Mole Valley had assured Mrs Minter that Ms Alexander had not left her previous property in a dirty state.  A misstatement if ever I heard one!

The Council tried to wriggle out of this by saying that they were bound by Data Protection legislation.  However, the Judge was unimpressed, saying that had they asked Ms Alexander for her consent to pass on information and she had refused, that alone would have warned Mrs Minter that not all was well.

Thoughts about the case

This is an interesting case as it seems that it is the first time that a Council has been found liable where they recommended a tenant to a landlord.  Nearly Legal is of the view that this type of case is unusual as they don’t think Local Authorities are going to  “undertake to vet the suitability of accepted homelessness applicants” very often as this would be “too onerous  a task”.

However I am not so sure. Landlords are going to be very wary about entrusting their properties to Local Authority recommended tenants, if they think they are going to be tenants of the calibre of Ms Alexander.

No landlord in their right mind is going to enter into an agreement which will result in their being left with a repair bill of £8K when a tenant leaves.  They are going to want assurances that the tenants housed will be ‘good’ tenants, OR an assurance that the Local Authority itself will foot any repair bill.

Indeed, I would advise all landlords thinking of entering into any such agreement with their Local Authority to make sure that something along these lines is included as part of their agreement.

So if Local Authorities then knowingly place unsuitable and destructive tenants with their landlords, we may be seeing a few more of these cases.

What do you think?

 Picture from one by Colin Smith on the Geograph site

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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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Page 1 of 11

11 Responses to Local Authority held liable for damage done by tenant

  1. Hi Tessa,
    Congratulations on the new site! Very interesting article and I guess this case is quite unique in that the local authority was clearly aware of Ms Alexander’s track record.
    From my own experience of dealing with local Midlands authorities they are always seemed cautious of making assurances on tenants or from entering into arrangements such as a deposit bond.
    However I think tide will start to turn and this will start to be more commonplace with the on-going increase in demand for rental properties due to difficulties purchasers are facing in securing mortgages/deposits.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Hi Architects and thanks for commenting. LLLBlog is quite an old site really (Feb 2006) but we do have a new home page.

    I think Local Authorities will need to make at least SOME assurances or landlords simply won’t be willing to take the risk – bearing in mind that it can take months to get rid of a bad tenant. I agree that few cases will be as clear as this one though.

  3. I can’t see this becoming all that common to be honest. No doubt the local authority concerned will have tightened up their procedures and stuck something into the rent deposit bond issued to the landlords saying that they do not provide any sort of guarantee or commitment as to the tenant’s tenantworthiness (or however one might express it)and that the landlord might still wish to perform all usual referencing checks with previous landlords, etc.

    A little off-topic I know but I once dealt with a case where a couple who approached a local authority for housing as homeless were being represented by the same solicitor who had acted for their landlord who had just evicted them from their AST accommodation after they and their pets had badly damaged it.

  4. In most states they can be billed for the 5 months of ‘accelerated rent.”, a re-letting fee, if your contract allows and damages. However the accelerated rent must stop the day a new tenant begins renting the same unit. Most states say that you can not charge two people for the same unit. You must also show that you have advertised and shown the unit to any perspective tenants.

  5. Thanks for your comments Chris and Pam.

    Pam, I suppose when you say ‘the States’ you mean the United States of America. This is a British blog, but it is interesting to hear what happens elsewhere.

    In England / Wales UK you certainly can’t charge two people for the same unit (unless they are joint tenants). The signing of one tenancy will automatically cancel the preceding one.

  6. This case realy disturbs me. We are living in a time when councils are stepping beyond the old bureacratic boundaries. Forming partnership links with local landlords. It is a genuinely radical time.

    Councils need PRS landlords. The aim is to support each other and generate a new system where both work together and yet the implication of this case is that councils are somehow more accoutnable for the people they feed to landlords than letting agents. Nobody can guarnatee perfect tenant behaviour, not agents nor councils. You dont hear of landlords suing agents for getting a crap tenant, why should it be different for local authorities?

    This case demonises tenants who come through a social housing route (Note that the survey recently carried out on the summer’s rioters showed that only 1% of those prosecuted were social houisng tenants) and will in future make it doubly hard for councils to build links with landlrods and set in place a different standard of behaviour tha normal letting agents arent subjected to.

    Anyone can go through the homelessness route, they arent all problem people. Many landlords, caught out by mortgage interest rises may well be the homelessness referral tenants of 2012

  7. The point of the case was that the Council KNEW that this woman had lived in a property before and done £25K worth of damage.

    I can see situations arising where Councils will have a statutory duty to re-house nightmare family A, but will have no property of their own to put them in. What are they to do? There may be a temptation to stretch the truth (as clearly happened here) just so they get them re-housed by a private landlord. I would hope that this would not happen but I can see it might.

    Its one reason why I am not happy at proposals to sell off more council housing without clear proposals to replace it property for property.

    No doubt most people on Council housing lists are fluffy bunnies but I bet they all aren’t.

  8. They’re saints to a man Tessa. Sometimes I cant move in our reception area for haloes and beatific light

  9. As a former council employee my preference was always that eligibility for a council’s rent deposit scheme should not be limited to those persons to whom the council had accepted a duty to rehouse. When one is having to deal with an awkward Housing Act appeal (eg defending an intentionally homeless or not vulnerable decision) it can come in handy to be able to introduce the applicant/appellant to a private sector landlord through the rent deposit scheme. Generally (and quite properly) the LSC won’t be interested in continuing to fund a Housing Act appeal for someone who has since been rehoused.

    As a matter of common sense I would hope that a local authority simply would not introduce a tenant to a private landlord where they had already determined that he was intentionally homeless through having trashed his previous home. But that said, one man’s ‘trashed’ is another man’s ‘fair wear and tear’. There will always be two sides to every story and where a council’s rent deposit scheme is entirely open, an applicant might choose to go down this route before the council have completed their enquiries into his homelessness application. A landlord must always satisfy himself that a prospective tenant is suitable and I can’t see the fact that a prospective new tenant comes with a council-issued rent deposit bond hanging round his neck would justify a landlord dispensing with his usual checks of previous landlords, etc. A rent deposit bond for £x is just a rent deposit bond for £x, not a guarantee of tenantworthiness and not a deposit bond for “as much damage as the tenant may do”.

  10. My point exactly Chris. Why should a council referring a tenant over be held to different account than a normal letting agent?

    Nobody can guarantee another’s behaviour. The old Caveat Emptor argument applies I think.

    Council’s do have these difficult tenants to rehouse but would the tenants be able to take a case out against the council if they found out that they couldnt find a property to live in because the council kept warning the landlords about their behaviour?

    Rest assured I am just turning the legalities over in my head, not the moralities or the notion of self responsibility.

    Councils will often place people with local landlords knowing they have unspent criminal convictions, such convictions will more often than not invalidate the landlords insurance, but the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act places the responsibility for informing lanldords on the tenants, not on a referring agency, who may well raise the ire of the tenant for passing such information on.

    It isnt as simple as the common sense of the situation.

  11. Very interesting case study but I bet the local authority fought ‘tooth and nail’. It would have been great if the landlord agreement was published.




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About the post author:

Tessa Shepperson

Tessa is a lawyer specialising in residential landlord and tenant law. She runs the Landlord Law website (now in its 12th 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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