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Landlord’s threats of legal action amounted to harassment of tenant

Tenancy agreement and keys from home in a real estate agency. Print publication

21/06/2018


The recent Court of Appeal decision in Metropolitan Housing Trust Ltd v Worthington (1) and Parkin (2) [1] alerts landlords to the risk of their dealings with tenants amounting to unlawful harassment.  Housing Management and Litigation expert Karl Anders explains and offers practical advice, which will be of particular interest for social housing providers and landlords of multi-let properties.

Multiple tenants, multiple grievances

Having multiple tenants in the same vicinity can often lead to the landlord having to mediate neighbour disputes and deal with tenants’ grievances. Deciding how best to proceed in such cases, particularly when cases touch on sensitive issues and where tensions are high can be very difficult.  Landlords can often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when trying to manage tenants’ competing views and interests. The recent case of Metropolitan v Worthington and Parkin highlights just how carefully a landlord must tread.

Metropolitan v Worthington and Parkin

Mr Worthington and Ms Parkin were tenants of the Metropolitan Housing Trust (the Trust).  They had complained of anti-social behaviour in the local area.  Mr Worthington therefore formed a residents group, and Ms Parkin was given permission to install CCTV, to collect evidence of anti-social behaviour.  However some of the Trust’s other tenants took exception to Mr Worthington’s and Ms Parkin’s actions and complained to the Trust that they were causing a nuisance, invading the privacy of other residents and even taking inappropriate photographs of children.  On receipt of such complaints, the Trust and its solicitors, over a course of correspondence to Mr Worthington and Ms Parkin, repeated those allegations and made threats of legal action, including threats of injunctions to restrain their alleged breaches of the terms of their tenancies and threats of possession action.  In fact, no legal action was ever taken and the complaints against Mr Worthington and Ms Parkin were found to be baseless.

The aftermath was that Mr Worthington and Ms Parkin successfully sued the Trust on the basis that its course of correspondence amounted to unlawful harassment pursuant to section 1 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

The Court of Appeal found that the Trust had properly failed to supervise its employees dealing with the matter; that it had failed to carry out adequate investigation of the complaints made against Mr Worthington and Ms Parkin; and that the Trust’s conduct and correspondence had crossed the line into oppressive, unreasonable or unacceptable conduct and was therefore harassment. The Trust was therefore liable to pay damages of over £4,000 to each claimant, as well as incurring legal costs and potential reputational damage.

Practical advice

This case emphasises the importance of properly investigating complaints and grievances before landlords take any steps against tenants – this will include sending correspondence and/or making threats of legal action.

If landlords are to avoid or defeat claims of harassment, they must be able to demonstrate the adequacy of investigations undertaken; the fact that evidence obtained in that process has been properly considered and assessed; and the reasonableness of their action taken in response. Ideally, landlords should only take any steps once they are fully satisfied that any complaints made can be substantiated and corroborated and the language used in correspondence is also of importance.

The case also emphasises the importance of employee training and supervision, as well as the need to have clear policies and procedures in place for the full and proper investigation of and response to tenants’/residents’ complaints, including the interview of alleged perpetrators as well as complainants. As a matter of good practice, landlords should also keep full written records of all complaints made; investigations undertaken; consideration of, and conclusions drawn from, evidence obtained; and any steps taken as a result.

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[1] [2018] EWCA Civ 1125

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