A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The case of the Typical South London Carry-On
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TRO) work for local council’s providing advice on landlord tenant law and investigating allegations of harassment and Illegal Eviction and prosecuting landlords. All names are false but the stories are true.
The Laszlo family, mum, dad and teenage daughter, Hungarians, come in for advice. They don’t speak English (Yes I know I always have written before about clients who don’t speak English but many of mine don’t).
So I have to rack up our interpreters bill by using Pearl Linguistics again.
Their story is that husband Frank came to the UK 3 years ago working as a painter and decorator. He rented the small flat in a converted house with the landlady, Mona living in a flat downstairs.
A year ago Martha Laszlo and 14 year old daughter joined him. Martha works as a cleaner in a hotel. No problems at all. They pay their rent on time and keep the place clean and tidy. Then several months ago Mona disappeared off to Jamaica without leaving any instructions about the rent.
Frank sends emails to Mona asking her what she wants them to do but she doesn’t respond so the family are at a loss and keep the rent aside in their bank account.
Then a man turns up at the door saying he is Mona’s son and telling them that they have to pay their rent to him. They have never met him before so they refuse. They politely manage to communicate to him that if they get approval from Mona about the arrangement they will happily pay him but not before.
He keeps calling nightly and getting more and more aggressive with his demands each time.
Eventually he forces his way into their flat, turns off the gas and electricity and bizarrely rips up all the floorboards in the kitchen (remember this is a 1st floor flat) so they cant walk in there without running the risk of falling into Mona’s flat below.
I go to the property to see this and then call him to meet me. He arrives 20 minutes later with a girlfriend who looks like Bill Sykes’s dog……..well I wouldn’t want to take her on. He is not much more friendly looking either. My presumption is that he has taken cocaine, because he keeps hopping from foot to foot, sniffing and generally looking jumpy, avoiding eye contact.
We talk to and fro, trying to keep the situation from becoming too aggressive and the sole evidence he offers to verify that he is his mother’s son is that he keeps insisting that he is, adding “Why would I lie?”…………why indeeeeeeed!!!!!!!!! Why would a man who turns off a family’s utilities and rips up their floorboards lie? Perish the thought.
I ask him how long his mum is going to be in Jamaica and he tells me 3 months, visiting family.
I ask him his name, there is a slight pause and he says “Tony Newman” whilst looking and smiling slightly at Bullseye. Yeah mate, like I believe that too!!!!!!!
Legal point: Turning off utilities and ripping up the floor is an act of harassment but there is a technical problem. If he is acting under the landlord’s instructions then I only have to show that his actions are “likely” to cause distress. If he is acting independently then I have to prove that he is acting with the ”intent” of making them leave, which is a different legal ballgame. I cant contact the landlord to establish where I am at, or even if he is actually her son.
I am at a loss to know how to progress it in a legal manner. I can’t even explain this to the tenants because of the language barrier.
So I have a light bulb moment and say to Tony, “If I can get them to pay their rent to you will you put the floor back and turn the utilities back on?” He says that he will, so I say to the tenants “Right!!!!! Pay him and we’ll worry about it later on”, and all is made right again.
I can’t prove or disprove who is but on this cold day I am more concerned with getting the tenants gas and electricity back on and a floor to walk on. If Mona returns at any time and has a problem with him receiving rent then that is her look out and I’ll deal with the fallout then. One of the advantages of being a non lawyer is that I can be a bit more cavalier with things than a solicitor can, and lets face it, if Mona returns and goes ballistic about the arrangement I can always deny it and blame the language barrier for a misunderstanding.
Except it doesn’t end there. Last week Martha comes in again and through the interpreter tells me that Mona returned from Jamaica and everything was fine with the rent and that Tony actually is her son.
However Frank’s work is improving and they want a bigger place so their daughter can have her own bedroom. He gave Mona one month’s notice, as is required by law and told her the date that they will be moving into their new home.
Mona flips about this and disconnects their electricity again……..this case is becoming like snakes and ladders. I call environmental health and it turns out she has done this to the previous tenant too.
They call the police who tell her to put the supply back on again, which she does. But two days later she knocks on their door and when Frank opens it, Mona and another woman barge past and get into the kitchen where both women start shouting at the family. Mona opens the fridge and starts throwing their food onto the floor and when Martha tries to intervene, Mona pushes her away and throws a mug at her. Martha ducks and the mug goes through the window..
Police are called again and they warn Mona off but Mona changes the lock on the front door and turns off the electricity again. Police tell her to stop but she refuses. Not for the first time the police come up with the creative solution of getting the tenants, through an interpreter, to sign a letter written by the landlord stating they will move out in 48 hours time. I don’t need to tell you that is not lawful.
I go to the property again, this time to confront Mona and am amazed when she opens the door and see that the cause of all this mayhem is actually a tiny woman in her 70s, probably less than 5 feet tall and weighing about 6 stone.
I can see that the fuses have been removed from the fuse box. She still hasn’t given the family a key to the new lock so they keep alternating time off work so that there is always one of them in.
Despite threats of prosecution and fines Mona is absolutely adamant that she wont budge. She keeps saying that God knows she is in the right and that only God can judge her.
What do I do????? If I replace the fuses she will simply take them out again when I leave, there is no lock on the fuse box. The family cant afford the £150 fee for me to go and get an injunction for them and even if they could, I’d lay money on her completely ignoring it and the court wont commit her to prison for contempt, she makes Kylie Minogue look like a rugby player.
I explain all this to Martha. She generously says it’s OK. They have 2 weeks left until they can move and will brave it out without electricity.
Moral of the tale? Sometimes it’s best to just call in sick!
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a TRO and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more. Read more about Ben here.
Photo by Dave 79