Illegal Evictions – Divide and rule
Since the start of the recession there has been a rise in illegal evictions, and with the changes to Housing Benefit coming in next year there could be an even bigger rise.
Tenants actually have a lot of legal protection under the 1977 Protection from Eviction Act (England & Wales), TheRent (Scotland) Act 1984, and the Rent (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. This was the result of two decades of policy moves. The Conservative governments of the 1950s partially deregulated rent controls. However, this led to a rise in landlords forcing tenants out of their homes so that they could charge higher rents under the new deregulated regime. This culminated in the scandals around Peter Rachman, a landlord who became a millionaire in the 1950s from such activities.
Then followed an investigation by the Milner-Holland Committee into the effects of deregulation. The incoming Labour Government reacted to these problems and passed the 1964 Protection from Eviction Act and 1965 Rent Act making illegal eviction a criminal offence. The legislation was then finally consolidated in 1977 by the Rent Act and the Protection from Eviction Act, which says:
“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”.
This law states that it is a criminal offence if a landlord, their agent, or other persons connected to them attempts to deprive you of your home. Most councils and charities provide examples of illegal eviction:
- changing the locks
- removing the tenant’s possessions
- physically throwing the tenant out
- moving someone else in
- depriving the residential occupier of part of the premises ie bathroom or kitchen
It’s also illegal for them to harass you, for example, by:
- disconnecting gas, electricity or water
- deliberate disruptive repair work
- visits to the premises that are frequent or at unreasonable hours, or persistently going into the property with permission
- threats of violence or illegal eviction
“acts likely to interfere with the peace and comfort of a residential occupier or members of his household; or persistently withdrawing or withholding services reasonably required for the occupation of the premises as a residence”.
The punishment is up to a £5000 fine and six months prison in the Magistrates Court, or an unlimited fine and two years prison in a Crown Court. This depends on how serious the offences were, obviously.
The Reality: divided tenants
Rosie was renting a shared house with four other people when her landlord decided to move them out.
“if I had been renting a one bedroom flat on my own, I would definitely have fought it and stayed until the bailiffs came, but I was in a 5 bedroom house with 4 other people (not really friends, just people who rented rooms in the same house) who wanted to do whatever the landlord said.”
The other tenants were not prepared to dispute the eviction, or even to listen to what their rights were. They even assisted in the viewings process for prospective new tenants, showing them around Rosie’s room without permission.
“It was a horrible, horrible atmosphere and I felt so uncomfortable there that I had to go and stay at a friends for the last month that I paid rent for.”
Even if she had decided to stay and exercise her rights, Rosie felt the environment in the house with the new tenants who as bad if not worse.
The lack of solidarity amongst tenants is not just a block to housing rights, as we can see from Rosie’s case tenants can turn against each other and effectively become agents of the landlord in their own illegal eviction!
“I think the fact that we have to share houses in London, due to the high cost, makes tenants much weaker against bad landlords. We have to move in with people we don’t really know, so there’s a lot less solidarity among tenants in the same house when the landlord acts unfairly”
The Reality: ineffective councils and support
“I didn’t feel that Hackney council offered me any real support, either, and if you’re going to do it you need to feel that some authority is on your side.“ – Rosie
As a former councillor, I know that the quality of services vary from place to place. Councils have legal obligations around housing. However, the level of service provided will depend on how much they’ve invested over the years in building up housing advice, tenancy support, and other housing services.
Councils can provide mediation and negotiation between landlords and tenants. Every evicted tenant is someone in high housing need who they have an obligation to house, so preventing evictions is in their interest. They can also prosecute cases against landlords in the criminal courts. How proactive are councils in pursuing cases? Scanning round the internet, you see a pattern of occasional prosecutions from other councils with a much larger number of tenants reinstated and preventions of evictions.
The Reality: Whose side are the Police on?
When a crime is being committed against you, you would hope that the Police would intervene to stop it. Unfortunately with illegal eviction this is often not the case. There are examples of the Police refusing to intervene, ignorance of the law, wrongly stating that it is a civil matter, and even assisting in illegal evictions (another particularly shocking case happened in Hull).
There is help if your landlord is trying to illegally evict you. The problems, as we can see from above are the extent of that help, the poor record of the police, and basically putting yourself as a tenant through the traumatic experience of contesting the eviction. What we can learn from Rosie’s case is that a united group of tenants is much stronger than a divided one, being able to share the burdens of seeking help whilst providing the emotional support in what is a horrible situation.
The law is clear, but the practice is far from ideal.