How not to behave! - Unlawful eviction.
3rd April 2023
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3rd April 2023
Whilst the following case of Wu v Chelmsford City Council (2023) EWCA Crim 338 should be a fairly obvious prime example of how NOT to behave as the landlord of a tenanted property, it is distressing how many times this sort of thing does occur or would occur, if some landlords carried through their intended actions but for some prior and often calming sensible advice preventing them from doing so.
First of all though, and before the interesting detail of the case, we highlight the likely relatively well known provisions of section 1(2) and 1(3A) of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 (“PEA1977”) as follows:-
Section 1(2) provides that
If any person unlawfully deprives the residential occupier of any premises of his occupation of the premises or any part thereof, or attempts to do so, he shall be guilty of an offence unless he proves that he believed, and had reasonable cause to believe, that the residential occupier had ceased to reside in the premises.
Section 1(3A) provides that
Subject to subsection (3B) below, 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.
(3B) A person shall not be guilty of an offence under subsection (3A) above if he proves that he had reasonable grounds for doing the acts or withdrawing or withholding the services in question.
A breach of the PEA1977 is a criminal offence which can result in imprisonment and/or fines, Rent Repayment Orders, banning orders and civil damages.
The facts of his case
Mrs Wu was the landlord of a property let to her tenants, Mr & Mrs K. Mrs Wu served a notice seeking possession upon Mr & Mrs K but did not then issue possession proceedings in the county court. Instead she sent her contractors in on 13 June 2018 to change the locks and “resolve a water leak” which resulted in the removal, but not reinstatement, of part of the water supply pipe and so having the effect of turning off the water to the property.
Mrs K was in the property during all of the above and called her husband who was at work. Mr K contacted the local authority, Chelmsford City Council, who advised him that the conduct of Mrs Wu was unlawful. Eventually Mrs Wu attended at the offices of the Housing Office with Mr K where Mrs Wu was informed that, absent water supply, the property would be uninhabitable and, as that had resulted from her actions earlier that day, she would be liable to rehouse her tenants until the problem was resolved. Additionally, she was informed that her conduct in changing the locks and not supplying the new lock keys to Mr & Mrs K was likely to amount to an illegal eviction (notwithstanding that Mrs K remained in the property, albeit unlocked).
Eventually, on 14 June 2018, Mr & Mrs K were provided with the keys to the new locks at the property.
Chelmsford City Council brought proceedings against Mrs Wu for unlawful eviction under s.1(2) PEA1977 for actually or attempting to unlawfully deprive Mr & Mrs K from their occupation of the property by changing the locks and failing to provide them with the new keys. They also pleaded a breach of s.1 (3A) in that Mrs Wu had committed acts likely to interfere with the peace and comfort of Mr & Mrs K in disconnecting the water services and refusing to reconnect them within a reasonable time, knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, that that conduct was likely to cause the residential occupiers to give up the occupation of the whole or part of the premises.
At a trial on the above points before a jury who rejected Mrs Wu’s suggestion that she had simply forgotten to provide a copy of the keys to Mr & Mrs K.
Not to be beaten though Mrs Wu sought to appeal the conviction on both pleading, firstly, that as Mr & Mrs K were in occupation at all times during 13/14 June 2018 and thus not actually excluded fromthe premises, she could not be said to have put or kept them pout of the property. The Court of Appeal rejected this point on the basis that in failing to provide keys to enable Mr & Mrs K, the result was the same and the conviction upheld.
Mrs Wu further appealed the conviction under 1 (3A) on the basis that the provision refers to “acts” of the landlord, in the plural and therefore required more than a single act of failing to reconnect the water. This point was also rejected on the basis that there was no reason why a single act or omission should not attract criminal liability and again the conviction was upheld.
We are all likely to have an opinion as to the thought process and likely intended outcome of the conduct of Mrs Wu when she appointed her contractors on 13 June to change the locks and not pass keys to the tenants in occupation. Whilst cutting off the water and not reconnecting it will have “resolved” the leak the writer assumes that Mrs Wu was also aware of the effect of her conduct here too!
All merit to Mrs K who stoically appears to have remained in the property at all times under what must have been a fairly difficult and pressurising 36 - 48 hours.
It goes without saying that no landlord should act as Mrs Wu did and, if they do, they are quite likely to face both action by the local authority and potentially a damages claim (see here) from their tenant. If a landlord requires possession there are no short cuts (no matter how unreasonable you may believe that the tenants are or how urgently you might consider you need the property vacant) and so do seek proper and competent legal advice in serving and then enforcing any possession notice. See here our guidance on the options available for seeking possession of a property let on an Assured Shorthold tenancy.
If you have any queries whatsoever, do get in touch with a member of the team on 01435 897297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Legal Update describes the position in law as at the date of this article and care should be taken to note any subsequent amendments to the position as set out above. The Legal Update is provided free of charge for information purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. No responsibility for the accuracy and/or correctness of the information and commentary set out in the article, or for any consequences of relying on it, is assumed or accepted by any member of KDL Law or by KDL Law as a whole.
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