Unlawful eviction and harassment – think before you act!
Landlords sometimes overlook the proper eviction procedures for removing an occupier from their property, putting them at risk of unintentionally committing a criminal and/or civil offence related to unlawful eviction and/or harassment.
This article will outline these offences which are enshrined in the Protection from Eviction Act (PEA) 1977 and the Housing Act (HA) 1988.
Understanding unlawful eviction
Unlawful eviction is a civil and criminal offence under section 27 of the HA 1988 and section 3 of the PEA 1977 respectively. It is defined as the attempted or actual unlawful deprivation of a residential occupier’s occupation of any premises or any part thereof.
A ‘residential occupier’ can be a tenant or a licensee, and the criminal offence under the PEA 1977 can be committed by any person and not just landlords or their agents. However, crucially for landlords, the case of Sampson v Wilson  established that landlords will be liable for the actions of their agents or others acting on their behalf.
When we think of eviction, we often envision acts of physical force or even violence aimed at preventing a residential occupier from accessing the property. However, there are many non-physical acts which could give rise to an offence, such as changing the locks of the property or depriving the occupier of ‘essential services’ such as water and electricity.
It was established in the case of R v Ahmad (1986) that an omission is not sufficient to establish unlawful eviction. In this case, the tenant claimed that the landlord had breached s.1 PEA 1977 by failing to provide a key. The Court held that an ‘act’ must have been committed for the landlord to be convicted under s.1 PEA 1977 as the statute clearly states that an offence is committed where the individual has acted in a way “calculated to interfere with the peace or comfort of [a] residential occupier”. Therefore, as access had been prevented by the landlord’s omission, they were found to be not guilty.
It is key to note that the residential occupier’s deprivation of their occupation of the property does not need to be permanent for the offence to be committed; any temporary deprivation of the residential occupier’s rights will be sufficient.
The HA 1988 and the PEA 1977 also provide for the civil and criminal offences of harassment.
Both regimes define harassment as acts likely to interfere with the peace and comfort of residential occupiers or any members of their household, or the persistent withdrawal of services reasonably required for the occupation of the premises. This offence is something landlords should be especially wary of as apparently innocuous acts, such as repeatedly visiting the property without notice, can amount to a breach of the law.
The offence is committed if the landlord or agent knows or reasonably believes their conduct will result in the occupier surrendering up all of part of the premises or refraining from exercising any right or pursuing any remedy in respect of all of part of the premises.
It is important to be aware that landlords found guilty of these offences could be liable for fines (under the HA 1988), as well as custodial sentences and banning offences.
When a landlord is thinking about recovering possession of their property or dealing with a problematic tenant, they should always take professional advice and never take matters into their own hands. While there are various defences to both offences, civil and criminal proceedings can be avoided entirely by being aware of and adhering to the law.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are unsure how to legally evict an occupier or are worried that you have taken actions which may amount to harassment or unlawful eviction, contact a member of our team at Clarke Willmott.
Our experienced Property Litigation team specialise in dealing with residential disputes and can help landlords avoid, or mitigate, the consequences of unlawful eviction and/or harassment.