No Human Rights Here – McDonald v McDonald in the Supreme Court

McDonald v McDonald [2016] UKSC 28

The European Convention on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Act 1998 are basically intended to regulate the relationship between individuals and the State, not between individuals themselves, which is generally left to domestic law. The HRA provides this expressly:

s 6.1 It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right.

So what happens when one individual, or private organisation, while exercising their own rights, normally as to the ownership of property, infringes the Human Rights of another individual?

In the housing field the easiest way for this to happen is when a landlord seeks possession of a house or flat belonging to him, but occupied by somebody as their home, and so the occupier’s rights would normally be protected under Article 8 of the Convention:

Art 8.1 Everyone has the right to respect for his private and fimily life, his home and his correspondence.

Art 8.2 There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

This clashes with the landlord’s rights under Article 1 of the First Protocol to the Convention:

A1P1. Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.

The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a state to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.

If the occupant is evicted they lose their home. If not the landlord is deprived of his property. Which takes priority? It is easy enough if you are asking the judge to exercise his discretion and make an order, because he can take all these factors into consideration. But how do you decide if the landlord is seeking possession under a mandatory ground, such as ground 8  or s21 HA, when the judge has no discretion in the matter?

Well, the matter was decided in respect of property belonging to public bodies long ago, in the well known cases of Manchester CC v Pinnock (2010), and Hounslow v Powell etc (2011) I wrote about them at the time (here and here) and the SC decided that in an appropriate (ie very strong) case the court should decide whether the order sought was “proportionate” in all the cirdumstances. In practice the courts rarely exercise this discretion, but it is there and cannot be ignored, with public bodies generally adapting ther procedure to take it into account. And in this context “public bodies” includes most social landlords, following the CA case of Weaver v London & Quadrant (2009).

This was all based on the wording “a public authority” and so at first glance couldn’t affect relationships between private individuals, or private bodies. However, these are all cases where there is a mandatory ground of possession, with no discretion to the judge, and a strong feeling of unfairness, or lack of proportionateness, so the occupants’ advocates were inventive, and argued that although Joseph Soap, the landlord, wasn’t a public body, the local county court was, and so the court was bound by the HRA even if the landlord wasn’t. The court would therefore have to consider and deal with the human rights points, and if that affected the landlord’s rights then this was covered by the proviso in A1P1. If the argument succeeded than it would in fact apply to all areas of law, and not just housing claims, so it was a matter of great importance.

McDonald v McDonald

This was an undoubtedly hard case. The defendant, an adult with psychiatric and behavioural problems, was living in a house bought for her by her parents with the aid of a short-term interest-only mortgage from CHL. She had an AST of the property, paid from her benefits. Unfortunately her parents’ financial circumstances deteriorated and they could no longer pay the morgage payments in full. CHL appointed receivers under the LPA who exercised their power to serve a s21 notice on the defendant, and brought possession proceedings.

At Oxford County Court the defendant’s representatives argued that the court ought to consider the proportionality of making an order for possession, given that there was medical evidence that having to move would have a severe adverse affect upon her. HHJ Corrie held that he had no power to do this as the claimants were not a public body. However, if he did have the power the Judge would have exercised it and dismissed the possession claim, there being no other way to protect the defendant’s interests.

The CA dismissed the appeal and the case got to the SC and judgment was given on 15.6.16. They identified three questions:

  • should a court consider proportionality in a claim to evict a residential occupier by a private sector owner;
  • if so, is can s21 HA be read in a Convention compliant way; and
  • if so, would the Judge have been entitled to dismiss the claim as he said he would?

Proportionality

The defendant’s counsel argued strongly that the court was clearly a part of the state, and so was bound to consider proportionality in making any possession order, and if there was a private sector claimant would have to balance their A1P1 rights against the occupant’s Art 8 rights when coming to a decision.

The court said that things were not as simple as that. Parliament has regulated the position between private landlords and tenants for many years and although the tenant with an AST has restricted rights, they are significant and show where parliament has democratically decided to strike the balance between them. There are no circumstances where a judge should use Article 8 to make a different order from that determined by the contractual position, as regulated by the legislation. And as Lord Millett explained in Harrow LBC v Qazi (2004) the court:

 is merely the forum for the determination of the civil rights in dispute between the parties… once it concludes that the landord is entitled to an order for possession, there is nothing further to investigate. [paras 108-109]

Having looked at the cases from the ECHR the court decided that although there was some support for the view that Art 8 was engaged, there was none that said that a judge had to consider proprotionality when making a possession order, so the appeal was dismissed.

Can s21 be made compliant?

The court said that it is one thing to imply words into legislation which are consistent with the scheme of the legislation, but are needed to make it comply with the Convention. It is quite another to insert words that are wholly inconsistent this its scheme. That is not interpretation, but amendment, and is something for parliament and not for the courts to do. If the section was incompatible then there would have to be a declaration of incompatibilty. But in the circumstances this did not arise.

Should the Judge have dismissed the claim?

The judge could only postpone any order for possession bu up to six weeks, and then only if there was exceptional hardship. It was difficult to see how it would ever be proportionate to dismiss the posession claim altogether, and prevent the mortgagees getting repaid at all. The mortgage term expired only three weeks after the County Court judgment, and the only way to recover the loan was by selling the property with vacant possession. On the facts possession should have been postponed by six weeks at the most.

And this means?

The court has banged the argument that all law is subject to the Convention because all laws are enfirced by courts very firmly on the head. And also indicated that s21 and other mandatory possession grounds have been decided by parliament and that the courts must accept the balance between the parties that parliament has struck.

There may be a few small points on introductory tenancies still to be considered, but these are granted by public sector landlords, and this case, hard as it is to the parties concerned, really draws all this argument to a close, some 18 years after the Human Rights Act came into force.

Sighs of relief from private sector landlords. And at least the rest of us know where we are.

More details as ever with the Nearly Legal blog.

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Author: Coventry Man

A perspective from a litigation lawyer in the Midlands. After many years in Coventry I am now with David Lee Solicitors in Kenilworth, helping people with all sorts of litigation, especially property and landlord & tenant problems.

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