A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
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 case of the Scheming Solicitors
(Ed – scheming solicitors? Some mistake surely? See this post here).
Regular readers of TRO confidential could be forgiven for thinking that TROs are like a landlord/tenant version of Starsky and Hutch, whipping from job to job, kicking in doors and shouting “Oy….Landlord……sling yer ‘ook”
But in reality the vast majority of it is untangling complicated and arcane legal messes. This is a case I am working on at the moment that is seriously tweaking my sense of outrage.
Two years ago the council set up Doreen Mason and her kids with a private let. All our files show the landlord we arranged this with was Millview Properties, run by one Ivy Newman. Deposit was paid and housing benefit set up to pay Millview.
Doreen came in for advice and it transpires that unbeknownst to us at the time Millview were actually renting the property off of the owners Treefield Estates of 110 Hyde Park Rd so Doreen was actually a sub tenant. More on this later but are you with me so far?
In September last year Ivy Newman wrote a letter to Treefield that I have on file, telling them that her computer had been stolen and was being used to perpetrate a financial fraud and that this would cause problems with her accounting for the time being.
At the same time she also wrote to Doreen with the same information and advising her to hold on to her rent until she had it sorted. That was the last Doreen heard from Ivy.
In January 2010 Treefield’s solicitors Capgoods of, get this, 110 Hyde Park Rd (Mr and Mrs Patel, who trade as Treefield are also Capgoods) issued a section 8 notice on Ivy as their tenant for rent arrears.
After doing this they received notification that Millfield had gone bankrupt so their chance of getting their money back are pretty much zilch.
A short time later Doreen gets a letter from Capgoods, saying they act for Treefield and stating that “Their tenant – Ivy Nelson” (pay attention to that phrase) has done a bunk and that they will be taking over.
A few weeks later Mr Patel goes to the property and talks to Doreen and gives her a new tenancy agreement to sign with them. She isn’t impressed with what is going on and states that she still has a valid assured shorthold agreement with Ivy Newman that was arranged through the council.
Shortly after this Capgoods serve a section 8 notice on Doreen for £10,000 rent arrears……the arrears that Ivy Nelson owed them.
They go to court for possession and Doreen fills in a defence form stating that she was paying Ivy Nelson and that her own arrears came into being because before disappearing Ivy, her landlord, advised her not to pay because of the computer theft.
Doreen doesn’t have anyone in her corner on the day and defends herself, against qualified solicitors, and somehow (I wasn’t there so I don’t know how this happened yet) leaving the court owing £14,500 rent arrears.
This is how it looks to me at the moment. Treefield knew all along that Millview were licencing the property off of them and subletting to Doreen. This is common practice. So in Law Millview is Treefield’s tenant. They seemed to acknowledge this by serving notice on Ivy in January. I surmise that Ivy sent the letter about the theft of the computer as a smokescreen she could rely on in later challenges about the bankruptcy, especially if the tax man is interested in her.
However, when Treefield realised that Ivy had gone bankrupt and done a bunk they knew they were facing a huge bill, so they changed tack and started pursuing Doreen for the money that Ivy owed them, even though Doreen stopped paying because her landlord told her too.
It’s the court bit I don’t quite get yet. If I had been there I could have at least got an adjournment while we sorted the mess out.
I wrote a 4 page letter to Capgoods, asking them to answer every point at issue. They completely ignored it and a warrant of eviction was issued. I wrote another letter asking them why they had ignored my previous letter and all I got was a terse 8 line response asking me why I had accused them of “procedural anomalies”. Delaying tactics? You betcha.
The problem is, although I am in court around 10 times a month getting injunctions and asking for suspensions and adjournments, defending a whole case where the outcome is a £14,500 debt is beyond my remit, as any claims over £5,000 are outside of the small claims court and no local solicitors can even look at the case for at least 7 days because of their workloads.
Because of the timescales she is going to lose her home, no question, and the council will have to spend more money re-housing the family but I am looking for a post-action claim on the money. It isn’t right that the poor woman walks away with a £14,500 debt owed by somebody else.
That’s where it is at the moment.
Now to the legal point:
A common complaint I hear from landlords is about the length of time it takes to evict a tenant. I have a lot of sympathy with this view. I too think it is often unnecessarily long.
Claims made using Section 21 are easy enough, it is simply a contractual matter of whether or not the fixed term has expired. No fault on the tenant. Personally I don’t see why notice of 1 month shouldn’t be served in these case as the court timescales will provide the extra time a tenant may need to find somewhere else to live) but claims of rent arrears or nuisance are basically accusations of fault being made by one party against another, and under law it is right that a person should have the right to defend themselves against an accusation. Especially, as in Doreen’s case the result is a massive debt and loss of a home.
I see that Landlord Action is behind a campaign to change the law in this respect. They state that the campaign seeks:-
(ii) Changes to the law to speed up the eviction process when a clear case of either non-payment of rent or anti-social behaviour exists,
But rent arrears and anti-social behaviour are often not ‘clear cases’. They may be in the mind of the applicant but under UK law a person has a right to defend themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many tenants who either deliberately or through no fault of their own do create arrears and become a nightmare for decent landlords trying to get through it all but there are also the Doreen Masons of the world and the law has to be there to protect them
Programmes like BBC’s Watchdog regularly run editions about demands for money that aren’t actually owed. Martin Lewis’s famous and successful campaign against the excessive charges and fees of banks is another illustration.
But back to Starsky and Hutch……….my dander is up about Treefield/Capgoods and I’m looking to kick ass!!!!!!!!!
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.