We attended the London Residential Property Tribunal on Thursday for what turned out to be one of the most bizarre, chaotic and disturbing hearings we have witnessed.
The property, in the borough of Greenwich, was a HMO over 3 floors with 5 bedrooms (no reception) let mostly to nurses who came from the Philippines to work for NHS trusts on 3 year contracts.
Clearly the landlord had specialised in this niche letting market by developing a relationship with the trusts: the trusts out-source the accommodation problems and the landlord gets tenants with regular secure jobs. The fact that these young female tenants were foreign nationals living in the UK for the first time obviously made them more vulnerable and less aware of their rights.
Hats off to these young women, though, who took on their landlord directly at this hearing of their Rent Repayment Order (RRO) application, overcoming the bureaucratic and language hurdles in order to Get Rent Back for harassment, illegal eviction and HMO licence infringements. Fortunately, the lead tenant was supported by 2 friends, one of whom gave brilliant testimony as a co-tenant and witness.
The lead tenant applicant had obviously worked hard to prepare her case but was clearly distressed, despite the tribunal’s best efforts to set her at ease, and her testimony was sometimes interrupted with tears and pauses as she gathered herself. Mr Korn, the lead judge was very understanding and a great calming influence.
Nevertheless, throughout the hearing and from both sides, there was considerable confusion over paperwork: pagination (yet again), missing papers, missing indices, screenshots of text messages without dates…
From the landlord’s side the strategy seemed to be one of denial and confusion, claiming:
- bundle of evidence not received (but later it appeared he had received it)
- reduced occupancy (conveniently below HMO thresholds)
- that he only issued a licence not a tenancy agreement (see below)
- that he was a live-in landlord (presumably to support above claim)
In addition were some very bizarre accusations by the landlord against the tenants regarding guests: that a guest of the witness who stayed 2 nights in the single “box room” (landlord’s own description) with her host and therefore unfairly contributed to extra utility costs, similarly for a guest who (allegedly, but denied by witness) just came for the afternoon!
Often, landlords who try to circumvent Housing Act regulations give tenancy agreements that have the title “LICENCE”. These are frequently sham licences that are really tenancy agreements.
The distinction between a tenancy agreement and a licence is very important in these cases: RROs can only be awarded to tenants that have a tenancy agreement. Although the landlord at this hearing was quite correct in pointing out that the title of the agreement does not decide the nature of the occupation, he did not explain why he had given his, alleged, “licence” the bold title “TENANCY AGREEMENT“. Where such a tenancy agreement had been signed it often relied on clauses with wording “under the terms discussed”. The landlord used this wording to insist that he had explained the contract terms verbally to the newly-landed nurse at arrival.
The landlord had produced a witness statement from a “very very good friend” (his words) that appeared to back up his claim that he was living in the property. The witness did not appear at the hearing for cross-examination. The lead-tenant complained that the statement should therefore not be admitted. However, the tribunal clarified that, although a witness should normally appear for cross-examination, their failure to do so did not invalidate the statement but simply gave it “less weight”. The directions of the tribunal in this regard are a little ambiguous. This had led to the applicant not producing other statements from other witnesses (whose nursing shifts would not have allowed them to appear) as she had believed they would be deemed inadmissible on that basis. Adding this to our TIPS now.
The landlord had insisted that all rent payments should be in CASH. Although there had apparently been a Rent Book earlier in the tenancy, this had mysteriously disappeared from the kitchen cupboard. The eviction of the lead tenant came after she had requested receipts for her cash rental payments after the book had been lost and a request by the tenant to pay by bank transfer was countered with an increased rent demand- to cover administration costs, allegedly.
The tenant had apparently accepted the eviction without a legal challenge though it seemed unlikely that proper notice had been served, either in form or timing. Eviction notification was apparently by text message from the landlord.
Bizarre scenes were reported by the witness about the end of the tenancy: the landlord had requested the key be returned on the last day of the tenancy, forcing the tenants back to the property late at night from their evening out. However, when they arrived he refused point-black to accept the key. His reasoning, explained at the hearing, was that he felt by accepting the key he was re-taking possession of the room too early and would only take it back after midnight. Of course, had this really been a licence, the tenant wouldn’t have had possession anyway so he seemed to undermine his own main argument.
The harassment consisted of claims by the tenant that the landlord didn’t allow them “quiet enjoyment”, he shouted at them frequently, slammed doors in their face, bombarded them with text messages and undermined their position with their employer, an NHS Trust, by complaining to them about their behaviour. Given the close nature of co-operation between this landlord and the tenants’ employers this must have felt a very real threat.
Imagine: you are a young female in your early twenties, 1000’s of miles from home, in a foreign country, unfamiliar with the law and language, you are shouted at and evicted by such a landlord who through his close contacts with your employer, is also threatening your livelihood.
We will watch for the decision on this case and update when available. In the meantime we are preparing a letter to write to NHS Trusts regarding the accommodation situation for their nurses, specifically to ask for the undertaking that any property they use should provide proof that it is properly licensed and that the tenancy agreement should be clear.
A property licence ensures higher safety standards, minimum room sizes and facilities and, importantly, checks that the landlord is a “fit and proper” person.