Being forcibly ejected from their home without any basis at all is most tenants’ idea of a nightmare. Originally introduced as a protection against rogue landlords, the statutory measures to protect against unlawful eviction have been considerably amended. The original Protection from Eviction Act 1964 was later followed by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 (PEA 1977), and this provides that court proceedings are mandatory in order for an eviction (sections 2 and 3). See Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
When the Housing Act 1988 brought on deregulation of the private rental sector, Parliament made further changes to ensure that this would not result in a generation of harassed and evicted tenants. The abolition of rent control to assured and assured shorthold tenancies required stringent controls over landlords attempting to repossess properties let to tenants who were protected by the Rent Acts.
An assured tenancy cannot be brought to end by the landlord except by obtaining an order of the court (Housing Act 1988, section 5).
The Housing Act 1988 also added further protection for tenants by enacting statutory damages for illegal eviction.
Three offences were created by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. One relates to unlawful eviction and two to harassment.
The criminal offence of unlawful eviction may be committed by any person who deprives, or attempts to deprive, a ‘residential occupier’ of his occupation, whether such occupation is statutory or by contract.
The offence is committed even where the occupier is deprived of only part of the premises, such as by locking a bedroom door, and also where this deprivation is not permanent. It must simply have the character of an eviction.
Licensees do not come within the definition of ‘residential occupier’, so therefore do not benefit from the protections of the PEA 1977.
Usually, landlords wanting to evict an occupier of their property are required to obtain a court order granting them possession of the property. For further information, see Possession and Repossession.
However, certain categories of occupation are excluded from this requirement, so the landlord need not apply to court and may just ask the occupier to leave. These categories are contained in the 1977 Act, and are referred to as ‘excluded tenancies’. They are essentially:
Occupiers who share accommodation with a resident landlord or a member of the landlord’s family, provided that it is the landlord’s only or principal home. ‘Accommodation’ does not include storage areas, staircases, passages or other means of access.
Where occupation has been granted only as a temporary expedient. This might include rights of occupation granted to a trespasser, or licences or tenancies granted to people occupying a property for the purposes of a holiday. This also includes people living in hostels owned by local authorities.
Where occupation is not granted for money or money’s worth.
Although it is not necessary for the landlord to contain a court order to evict an occupier who falls in one of the excluded categories, he must still be given reasonable notice that the landlord wishes him to leave.
Unlawful eviction can occur in relation to ‘any premises’. This clearly includes all types of residential premises. A single room with the shared use of a kitchen and bathroom is ‘premises’ for these purposes.
In the context of housing law, the criminal offence of harassment is deemed to occur where somebody tries to cause the occupier to give up the occupation of their home or to relinquish any of his rights in connection with it.
Harassment is a very broad term, used loosely to define a wide range of activities. It can take many forms, although it may not always be apparent to outsiders that particular sorts of activity are intended to drive the tenant from the property or to stop him doing something.
On the other hand, it may be the case that the landlord has good reason for doing the things he is doing. For example, a landlord will need to show a certain degree of firmness and tenacity in dealing with persistent rent arrears. A person accused of harassment may therefore have a defence if they have good reason for acting in a particular way, or for thinking that the tenant had left the property.
An offence is committed where a person does any acts likely to interfere with the peace or comfort of the residential occupier or members of his household, or persistently withdraws or withholds services reasonably required for occupation (section 1(3) PEA 1977).
‘Interfering with the peace and comfort of a residential occupier’ is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of activities that may constitute harassment. It might include verbal threats and other forms of intimidation. Equally, it might include milder forms of anti-social behaviour, such as excessive noise, removing fittings, knocking holes in walls and ceilings or leaving rubble about.
The landlord or agent also commits an offence where they know, or has reasonable cause to believe, that their conduct is likely to cause the residential occupier to give up the occupation of the whole or part of the premises, or to cause the occupier to refrain from exercising any right, or pursuing any remedy, in respect of the whole or part of the premises. (section 3A PEA 1977).
Even activities such as rent demands can result in harassing conduct if conducted unfairly or maliciously, such as where a landlord intentionally embarrasses a tenant by contacting publicly them at work.
On conviction for unlawful eviction or harassment, the court may impose a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale and/or six months imprisonment for summary jurisdiction.
If tried on indictment, the court may impose an unlimited fine and/or two years’ imprisonment.
In addition to the civil remedies of breach of contract, injunction or damages in tort, sections 27 and 28 of the Housing Act 1988 provide statutory damages. These are often substantial, and this remedy is available instead, or in addition to, criminal liability or penalties.
Damages under ss. 27 and 28 Housing Act 1988
A claim for damages under the Housing Act 1988 is potentially the most significant element of any unlawful eviction claim, although this remedy is available only if eviction has taken place.
Damages are calculated as the difference in value between the landlord’s interest if the tenant remained in occupation and the value of the landlord's interest without the tenant in occupation. The measure of damages therefore aims to balance any profit that the landlord is likely to gain from evicting the tenant.
Damages under s. 28 are punitive. The moral is therefore that landlords should never try to obtain possession, other than by court order, unless there has been, beyond doubt, unequivocal surrender by the tenant of the premises. See Surrender for further information on this.
Criminal Law Act 1977
The Criminal Law Act 1977 also creates an offence where any person, whether or not the landlord, uses or threatens violence against either people or property in order to gain entry into premises. However, an offence is committed only if the person seeking entry knows that there is someone present on the premises at the time of attempted entry, and that that person is opposed to the entry (section 6).
This is punishable with a fine not exceeding level 5 of the standard scale and/or a sentence of up to six months imprisonment.
This offence may be committed where an owner of property threatens violence against squatters in order to gain entry to the premises. For more information, see Trespass.