Our regular guest blogger Ben Reeve-Lewis gives us the benefit of his experience with enforcing the harassment laws
Harassment, what harassment?
I recently had cause to talk to a landlord about allegations that their tenant was making against them that they had been harassing them, as I do frequently, only to encounter, for the umpteenth time, a tone of utter astonishment and indignation.
The usual stunned response to this question being “But how can I be harassing them?”….how indeed?
To most people’s minds the notion of landlord harassment brings up visions of broken nosed loan shark types with camel hair coats and baseball bats.
The shadow of Peter Rackman still looms large in people’s ideas about landlord harassment, and there are still quite a few of these characters out there. Most landlords aren’t that bad but even the most reasonable of people can find themselves falling foul of allegations of harassment, because it has a legal definition and can be more than just physical violence or threats.
Defining landlord harassment
Make no mistake about it harassment of a tenant by a landlord is a criminal offence, despite what most police officers door-stepping a dispute tell the protagonists. But what is often misunderstood is that the prosecution of landlord harassment cases is usually carried out by your local authority, not the police.
The law that sets out the definition of harassment in this context is the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, and it says this (the important bits are in bold):-
“The landlord of a residential occupier or an agent of the landlord shall be guilty of an offence if—
(a) he does acts likely to interfere with the peace or comfort of the residential occupier or members of his household, or
(b) he persistently withdraws or withholds services reasonably required for the occupation of the premises in question as a residence,
and (in either case) he knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, that that conduct is likely to cause the residential occupier to give up the occupation of the whole or part of the premises or to refrain from exercising any right or pursuing any remedy in respect of the whole or part of the premises”.
Pay close attention to the word ‘likely’ in line 3 there. Originally, when the legislation was issued it said ‘With intent’. The problem was that hardly anyone got prosecuted for harassment because it is legally more difficult to prove a person’s intention. So the government amended the act some years later and replaced Intent, with ‘Likely’.
So, put simply the argument is, would it be apparent to a reasonably intelligent person that what they are doing could result in the tenant wanting to give up their accommodation? To really grasp this point the landlord has to put aside their sense of grievance and look at their actions from the tenant’s perspective. In doing so a different picture can form.
Out in the world
Here are some of the common complaints of landlord harassment that come by phone and interview every single day of the week in the housing advice world:-
· My landlord keeps calling me and pressing me to pay my rent arrears.
· My landlord insists on carrying out a property inspection every month and it is really getting me down.
· My landlord and her family came at the weekend and stood in the doorway telling me I had to pay the rent increase or they would throw me out.
· My landlord keeps coming to my property and taking things away. He took the fridge last week and now he has taken the microwave saying he needs it for another property and he will replace it but he never does.
· My landlord keeps sending me notes saying I will have to leave if I don’t clear my rent arrears.
Most landlords would think it reasonable to chase up their tenant’s rent arrears or to carry out regular inspections but, using these common examples above, the landlord has to ask themselves “If I was renting property and the landlord kept ringing me up saying “when are you going to pay?” would it make me want to give up my accommodation?”
You see, it is a widely cast net and many more actions run the risk of being construed as harassment than just violence and intimidation.
The council teams who have to investigate allegations are not daft and they can tell the difference between the hardcore stuff and situations we saw above but when a complaint is made they are duty bound to put the allegation to the other side. So if you receive a call of this kind, don’t be outraged. Imagine how annoyed you would be if you found out that these things were being said about you but you weren’t told?
Where are we going with this?
In his statement that the government would not proceed with regulation and licensing of private landlords, housing minister Grant Shapps said that there were enough laws already in place to deal with rogue landlords. He was talking mainly about the Protection from Eviction Act. And pressure is growing from a number of quarters for council’s to start taking a firmer line in matters of this kind.
The fact is that the majority of council officers responsible for taking action for harassment only really do so where the harassment involves violence or threats or other fairly extreme acts but are they now going to be pressured by managers to come up with more prosecutions, in the current and rather depressing obsession with performance statistics?
In practice it is very difficult to secure a conviction for harassment, and in my experience, apart from some landmark cases courts often don’t impose too much of a fine. I once prosecuted a landlord who went to a property and with 2 other men and waved a gun under the nose of a woman and her 3 children. It took me 2 years to get it into court and he was fined £400. to add insult to injury the judge refused our request for costs, which ran at around £8,500 if my memory serves me.
Most of the high damages you read about are awarded in civil cases where the same offences can be taken to court as what is called “Breach of covenant for Quiet Enjoyment” and that is something a landlord should be more worried about.
Civil claims are done and dusted in a lot less time than a criminal case, and the standard of evidence is far lower. For a successful; PFEA prosecution the council has to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt but in the civil court a successful claim is based only on balance of probabilities. Also there are different categories of damages involved which can prove far more costly.
If a tenant owes rent arrears then the legal machinery is in place for the landlord to recover the arrears, through possession action. My advice to landlords reading this is don’t try to shortcut proceedings – keep all your actions above board.
There are plenty of resources to help you get the information and support, this website is one of them. Don’t leave yourself open to accusations. As I wrote in a previous article keep things strictly business and don’t take the actions of your tenant, including allegations of harassment, personally.
Remember, just because you don’t consider your actions to be harassing the tenant it doesn’t mean that the law would agree with you. And as I always stress to landlords, how infuriating would it be to take a tenant to court for rent arrears only to have them counterclaim for harassment and end up with you coming out of court owing them money rather than the other way around?
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben was the Tenancy Relations Officer for Lewisham Council for 11 years, prosecuting landlords for harassment and illegal eviction. Now he is a freelance housing law training consultant with a more balanced approach, delivering housing law courses for the Chartered Institute Of Housing, Shelter etc. His aim now is to help the housing world work as a interdependent system that benefits all