Housing tribunal verdict is warning to landlords who overstep the mark - David Alexander

Anyone who finds themself three weeks in arrears with their mortgage payments could hardly be surprised if a reminder from the lender popped through the letterbox at any time. But rather than post such a letter, what if the mortgage company had a representative enter the property when no one was at home and place a written demand for payment on the kitchen table?

From a personal and professional point of view, Alexander finds the practice rather chilling. Picture: Laurence Winram

How would the occupier feel then? Outraged? Distressed? Perhaps a bit scared?

This, of course, is only supposition for no reputable, bona fide home loan provider would ever act in such a manner. But almost unbelievably, simply because a property is being rented there are some landlords (and even professional advisers) who consider it acceptable to enter a tenant’s home without permission, sometimes if the tenant is in arrears of rent but also, at times, for more flippant reasons.

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That such behaviour is totally unacceptable – and, indeed, unlawful – was learned the hard way by one letting agency recently, when the Housing and Property Tribunal (first-tier chamber for Scotland) ordered that it pay compensation to a tenant for just such an “offence”.

The tribunal was launched around two years ago to offer a simplified hearing system involving complaints by or against landlords, tenants and managing agents. It also provided a more cost-effective option for those wishing to pursue perceived injustices to that of going to court. In this case, the tribunal heard an application from a tenant whose rental payment had fallen into arrears (he claimed, by just three weeks).

'Violated'

While he, his wife and their two young children were out, an employee from the letting agent had entered the property (using spare keys) without permission. When the wife and a daughter returned to the flat she found a letter from the agency pointing to the arrears and demanding settlement. The fact that their home had been “violated”, the tribunal was told, had caused “considerable distress and trauma” to the family.

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For its part the agency told the tribunal it accepted the employee should not have entered the property without first asking permission. It had since apologised to the tenant and instituted internal training so that all staff were aware of the circumstances when it would be acceptable to facilitate legal entry.

The tenant, however, felt an apology was insufficient and the tribunal agreed, instructing the agency to pay the family £1,200 (the equivalent of one month’s rent) in compensation.When you think about it, the agency was lucky the sum awarded was not more. Entering a tenant’s property without the required authorisation is not only unlawful but in terms of business etiquette completely unacceptable. From a personal, as well as professional, point of view I find the practice rather chilling.

I have come across landlords who believe they have an absolute right to enter a tenanted property on the slightest excuse because it is “theirs”. They have been told, politely but firmly, that if they hold that view they had better find an alternative management agency. But for an agency to be ordered to pay compensation for doing so breaks new ground.

Even if a tenant has amassed several months of arrears landlords and agents need to be aware that right of entry is extremely limited. I accept this can be frustrating when dealing with rogue tenants who run up extensive arrears then use every trick in the book to delay eviction, but the law is the law.

So this outcome should be a warning. I have no doubt that in the past there have been cases when entry rights were similarly abused but aggrieved tenants decided not take things further because of the cost and hassle of going to court. That the tribunal now offers a simpler and infinitely less expensive option means landlords and agencies are not only in greater of danger of incurring a financial penalty but also of being “named and shamed”.

- David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander.