Recent Developments in Housing – a Round-up

As one year turns to the next it is tempting to write a piece with some of the stories that haven’t made it into the main blog during the year, and this is one of those pieces.

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 

This would have made the main blog anyway, except it was enacted on 20th December 2018 and so was too late for the year. It is a short and comparatively simple piece of legislation which more or less does what it says on the tin.

Very briefly, it imposes an obligation on the landlord of a residential lease of less than 7 yearsof a dwelling in England that the dwelling is fit for human habitation when the lease is granted, and will remain fit for human habitation throughout the length of the lease. It works alongside the obligations in s11 Landlord & Tenant Act 1985 which require landlords of short residential leases:

(a) to keep in repair the structure and exterior of the dwelling-house (including drains, gutters and external pipes),

(b) to keep in repair and proper working order the installations in the dwelling-house for the supply of water, gas and electricity and for sanitation (including basins, sinks, baths and sanitary conveniences, but not other fixtures, fittings and appliances for making use of the supply of water, gas or electricity), and

(c) to keep in repair and proper working order the installations in the dwelling-house for space heating and heating water.

The new Act expands the obligation so as to include things which are not matters of repair as such as natural lighting and internal arrangement. The factors which a court has to take into account in deciding whether the property is fit for human occupation are set out in s10:

In determining for the purposes of this Act whether a house is unfit for human habitation, regard shall be had to its condition in respect of the following matters—

repair,

stability,

freedom from damp,

internal arrangement,

natural lighting,

ventilation,

water supply,

drainage and sanitary conveniences,

facilities for preparation and cooking of food and for the disposal of waste water;

in relation to a dwelling in England, any prescribed hazard;

and the house shall be regarded as unfit for human habitation if, and only if, it is so far defective in one or more of those matters that it is not reasonably suitable for occupation in that condition.

There are the usual exceptions for unfitness caused by the tenant’s breach of obligations, or to carry out works that are prohibited by legislation (eg planning and listed-building laws) or for which he needs consent from a third party (eg a neighbour) and despite reasonable endeavours has not been able to get it.

The remedy is in the County Court, and because of s17 of the 1985 Act the court has wide powers to order specific performance as well as awarding damages.

The Act applies to all new tenancies granted on or after the commencement date – 20th March 2019, including the periodic tenancies that arise at the end of a fixed-term, and to all periodic tenancies from 20th March 2020.

This is only a short note. The Act was heavi;y supported by Giles Peaker, and there is a much more detailed note on his blog Nearly Legal.

McDonald v McDonald – application in the ECHR

I covered this case when it was in the Supreme Court here. The losing party had applied to the ECHR, arguing that there was a right to review the proportionality of any possession claim if it was based on mandatory grounds – in this case s21 Housing Act 1988.

The ECHR rejected the application as inadmissible, basically on the same grounds that the SC had used. The Convention is not directly enforceable in a dispute between two inividuals, and so a contractual or statutory claim such as this one is not subject to claims for proportionality. It would be different if a public body was involved (such as the Pinnock case). But the national courts were entitled to apply national legislation, such as s21, which drew a line between the competing rights of two individuals, and the ECHR would not interfere.

There is, as ever, a much more detailed note on Nearly Legal.

Consultation for a new Housing Court

The Government has launched a consultation on whether a new Housing Court should be formed and all submissions need to be in by 22nd January 2019 – further details here.

Superficially there would appear to be a lot to be said for a court full of specialists who could deal with possession claims in residential cases, disputes over deposits, harrassment and eviction claims, injunctions seeking access to residential properties and so on.

However, the leading suggestion is that this should be based on the First Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber), and although these tribunals have a lot of expertise big problems arise because they do not award costs in most cases, have no provision for Legal Aid, and cannot grant injunctions. This would seriously restrict the ability of many tenants to enforce their rights. Landlords generally attend the FTT with lawyers, and unless tenants can have Legal Aid, or have the possibility of No-Win No-Fee assistance from solicitors (which requires the payment of costs by the loser) then the system is going to be very unfair.

And although the FTT has some spare capacity at present, they really will not be able to cope with the current 120,000 possession cases a year, let alone other housing matters.

This clearly isn’t straightforward. There are articles pointing both ways by Nearly Legal, and by David Smith of the RLA, and a more recent one from Nearly Legal, so you need to think about it and then have your say by 22nd January 2019.

And a Happy New year to you all.

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.