Painsmith Landlord and Tenant Blog

A practitioners landlord and tenant law blog from PainSmith Solicitors

Setting the record straight….

It has come to our attention that some companies claiming to be experts in the field of Landlord and Tenant law are advising agents not to serve section 8 notices until tenants are into their third month of arrears because some judges insist that to serve a notice during the second month is “no longer acceptable”. The companies go on to suggest that certain firms deliberately issue notices prematurely in order to ensure adjournments and thus increase their own fees.

Leaving aside the accuracy of the statements and without joining in any mudslinging, Painsmith comments as follows:

1. Under ground 8 of schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1988, if rent is payable monthly and at least two months’ rent is unpaid the grounds for possession are made out. Rent means rent lawfully due from the tenant. This is spelled out in the Housing Act. Where rent is payable in advance but the tenant does not pay the rent on the payment date, then from the day after the rent payment date that months’ rent is lawfully due but unpaid, and ground 8 is made out.
2. Painsmith deals with hundreds of section 8 notices a certain number of which lead to possession proceedings for rent arrears. Painsmith has never experienced a judge adjourning a hearing on the basis that the section 8 notice should have been served in the third month.
3. Where the tenants pay quarterly then ground 8 is made out if “at least one quarters’ rent is more than three months in arrears”. In this case then you would need to wait until the tenant was three clear months in arrears.

Of course there is no compulsion to serve a section 8 notice on ground 8 immediately that the ground is made out. However the law is clear: where a tenant pays monthly in advance ground 8 is made out the day after the second unpaid rental due date has passed. As the leading landlord and tenant legal practitioners in this field Painsmith has a duty to set the record straight.

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, , , ,

What should I think about before I buy my freehold? The Cons.

For many Leaseholders getting together with fellow Leaseholders to buy the freehold of the building they occupy is seen as the end of problems with freeholders and controlling their own destiny. Whilst this is of course true before going down this major step leaseholders should consider if and why this is the right route for them.

The motivation for many is to rid themselves of a freeholder who they perceive is not offering good value for money and service and often the fact that all the leaseholders need to act to extend their leases. Undertaking a collective enfranchisement can often be achieved at a similar cost to that of all extending their leases particularly when legal and valuation costs are thrown into the mix. All seems simple and many groups at this stage press on with the purchase.

The issues generally arise sometime down the line when the glow of having purchased has worn off. Simply because you have bought your freehold does not mean that all problems go away. In our experience freehold purchases tend to be driven by a small group of leaseholders who put in enormous amounts of time and effort. Sometimes after the initial euphoria they find that they do not wish to (or can’t) give as much time to the freehold as before. As a freeholder you remain bound by the terms of the leases particularly with regards to service charges and repairs. Whilst often on completion the leaseholders will all have extended their leases (typically to 999 years) the service charge and repairing covenants usually remain the same. The freeholder is still governed by the statutory rules governing residential leases and must comply with all of these obligations including in relation to consultation. This year we have seen a number of LVT decisions reiterating this and making clear that there will be no let off for leaseholder owned companies.

As a result some of the imagined costs savings cannot be achieved as often a managing agent for practicality will still be required as well as having to go through all the processes. Certainly we would always recommend to any group considering enfranchisement that they should look to appoint managing agents to ensure that the day to day running complies fully with all of the legal requirements. We have seen over the past decade the increase in rules and regulations to ensure that individual leaseholders are protected but this has driven up costs as the work involved has increased.

Increasingly we are also being asked to advise both individual leaseholders and freeholds where the parties find themselves in dispute. This can be as simple as someone not having the money to pay the service charge and fellow neighbours having to take Court action to recover monies. The other extreme is in small blocks where the freehold is owned by named individuals and one is looking to sell and one or more of the other Owners will not sign the necessary transfer paperwork causing a sale to fail. Consideration needs to be given as to how you feel you will get on as a collective group and not just with your current leaseholders but potentially with subsequent Owners.

We have seen instances where the repercussions are so great that fresh collective enfranchisement claims have been made. Now with the lower qualifying majority of 50% it is possible that buildings can enfranchise and re-enfranchise again and again. We have seen a situation where the leaseholders of a small block has enfranchised on 3 occasions! The fees spent on such an exercise must be immense for little real gain to the leaseholders individually.

Whilst none of the above should necessarily put anyone off buying their freehold it is important that everyone enters this with their eyes wide open. Under the legislation there are various other routes that can often be adopted such as Right to Manage and undertaking bulk lease extensions either by the statutory route or negotiation. Commercial freeholders are alive to these issues and many will negotiate over items. There can be a benefit in having a completely separate (and we deliberately do not say independent!) freeholder. Whilst for most groups who enfranchise the process is an unqualified success story with many real and perceived benefits as with most transactions there are risks and it is important that all participants understand these.

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, , , ,

Common sense prevailing in contracts

The Supreme Court has confirmed in Rainy Sky SA and others v Kookmin Bank that they are prepared to ignore large parts of the original contract wording that can sometimes seem ambiguous and inconsistent in order to take a more commercial approach and apply common sense. This case demonstrates the continuous move away from a strict and literal approach to contractual constructions by applying common sense in order to eliminate the ambiguous wording of contracts which can cause disagreements amongst the parties with the wording often having more than one meaning.

In Rainy Sky SA and others v Kookmin Bank the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the previous decision of the Court of Appeal. The facts of the case are complicated because it’s a Maritime case and outside the remit of this blog. Therefore, briefly, the drafting of the guarantee agreement was the main cause of disagreement between the parties, as the drafting did not match that as stated in the shipbuilding contracts. Where the shipbuilding contracts had stated that should one party enter into insolvency then the buyers would have a right to rescind the contract and therefore obtain a refund for payments made pursuant to the contract, the guarantee agreement did not. Paragraph 2 of the guarantee stated that the buyers would be entitled to a refund if they exercised their right to “termination, cancellation or recission” their contracts and paragraph 3 provided the guarantee obligation that the defendant would pay the buyers “all such sums due to you under the contract”. But when one party began having financial difficulties and entered into a form of insolvency the defendant refused to give them a refund on the guarantee paid pursuant to the contract because the defendant argued that the insolvency was not “termination, cancellation or rescission”. The claimants argued that this literal interpretation made no business sense and that there was no good reason why insolvency should be excluded.

The courts decided to approach the contractual wording with what a reasonable person would have understood the parties to have meant, keeping in line with the consistency of the commercial purpose of the bonds. This approach to construction has been used in previous case law, notably Mannai Investment Co Ltd v Eagle Star Life Assurance Co Ltd where it was held that the ultimate aim of interpreting a provision in a contract is to determine what the parties meant by the language used, which involves ascertaining what a reasonable person would have understood the parties to have meant. However in Rainy Sky SA and others v Kookmin Bank [2001] UKSC 50 they were faced with the question of what happens if the reasonable person is capable of reaching two different interpretations from the same words? The court found it necessary to use the construction in a manner consistent with business common sense, as a language capable of producing an absurd or irrational result was held not to prevail over the commercial purpose of the agreement. The court therefore held that insolvency would be included in the list of grounds on which the parties could rely on in order to terminate the agreement and have the bond returned.

So why did the court allow common sense to prevail and what does it mean for the future? Language can be deemed as flexible in the sense that what might seem reasonable to one, isn’t deemed reasonable to the other. Thus meaning that although the presumption of a reasonable person can be used in most situations, it cannot be used in every situation that arises.

What does this mean to landlords and letting agents?
This case means that contracts, and particularly guarantee agreements, will be looked at by the Courts with an eye to giving them the force that the parties reasonably intended. They will not normally allow a guarantor to escape their obligations by reading a piece of ambiguous wording in an overly restrictive manner.

However, this should not be seen as a licence not to take care with documents. No landlord or agent would wish to undergo the expense of the multiple appeals that this case required.

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, ,

Energy Act 2011

Many of our readers have heard about the Energy Bill in some form or other.

The Bill was given the force of law on the 18 October 2011.

The basic issue for our readers is that:

• The Act includes provisions to ensure that from April 2016, private residential landlords will be unable to refuse a tenant’s reasonable request for consent to energy efficiency improvements where a finance package, such as the Green Deal and/or the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), is available.

• Provisions in the Act also provide for powers to ensure that from April 2018, it will be unlawful to rent out a residential or business premise that does not reach a minimum energy efficiency standard (the intention according to the Department of Energy and & Climate Change is for this to be set at EPC rating ‘E’).

Before the deadline of April 2018, the Secretary of State will need to pass regulations so that a landlord can not let a property until the above has been complied with. There does not appear to be any indication of when this might be however, the current Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne has made his intentions clear about introducing the regulations.

The Act only applies at present to tenancies governed by the Housing Act 1988 or the Rent Act 1977 and so does not apply to Common Law or Company Let agreements but this could change and if it does we shall update. The other issue to note is that the Act does not apply where the EPC has been obtained prior to the Regulations coming into force.

Whether or not landlords believe that this:

“The Green Deal is a win-win opportunity for landlords by removing the upfront cost of work to upgrade the property making it cheaper to run, more environmentally friendly and ultimately more attractive to rent.” (Chris Huhne, Secretary of State)

The fact is that the legislation is coming into force and agents should warn landlords of it so they have more than enough time to carry out the energy improvements.

Filed under: England & Wales, , , , , ,

Mediation: what is it all about?

Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) have become buzz words used by litigators over the past few years. Sadly however many people have simply paid lip service to these concepts and not properly engaged with them to make the best use of the opportunities which they provide for settling disputes.

Mediation itself comes in two forms. Evaluative Mediation which is where the mediator looks to advise the parties as to the merits and strengths of their case. This is similar to arbitration. More prevalent is Facilitative Mediation. This will be the focus of this blog post.

This type of mediation is a process whereby an independent party tries to assist the parties in reaching some form of agreement. The mediators role is to listen and adapt the process according to the requirements of the parties given it is their process.

Generally prior to the mediation the parties will have chosen the mediator and agreed a mediation agreement and then provided a mediation bundle. The mediators job is not then to rule on the merits or otherwise of the parties position but obviously it is useful for them to have an overview of the respective positions.

Mediation is a completely confidential process. This means that whatever is said should remain at the mediation and it is exceedingly rare for mediators to give evidence at a trial. Also it is not the mediators job to advise upon the settlement or to write the same up. All of this is the job of the parties jointly and they must satisfy themselves as to what they are doing. Usually the mediator will start the process by explaining all of this and then inviting the parties to each have a say.

This process of itself can often be very useful as it allows the parties to explain their position and often to vent emotions they feel. Whilst this can be a difficult process doing this in a controlled environment can of itself help to move the matter forward. Once initial statements have been made the mediator will then consider whether the parties should break into individual sessions. That being said there is no right or wrong as it must dependant upon the wishes of the parties.

The mediator may then move backwards and forwards between the parties. Sometimes inviting them back to joint sessions to discuss matters and also in closed sessions sometimes helping the parties test their cases. The mediator is often best doing their job when they appear to be like a ghost and are saying little!

Hopefully some common ground can be found and the parties can agree something. This will generally be drafted by the parties and they will sign this. Remember this agreement can cover anything not just what a court could or might order. This of itself is one of the great benefits for commercial disputes. A confidential settlement can be reached and relationships maintained.

Mediation does not prevent disputes but it does offer parties a chance to resolve them speedily and effectively. For the process to really work all the participants including the lawyers need to understand the process and the benefits.

If you want advice on mediation or require a mediator we would be happy to help. We have trained mediators who can provide a fixed price service to help resolve disputes.

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, ,

Can the freeholder recover costs incurred in pursuing me at the LVT as service charge?

The above question is one which frequently arises when a claim has been made by a freeholder to the LVT to determine the reasonableness of service charges.

Obviously it is always open to the tenant to request that the LVT in determining the application will exercise it’s discretion and make an order under Section 20c Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. If such an order is made the LVT can order that no costs will be added to the service charge accounts or limit the amount/proportion that may be recovered. If the freeholder is generally successful in their application often the LVT will not make such an order and so then the costs may be recoverable.

As various articles have said it is then important to look at the terms of the lease. Unless the lease allows recovery the freeholder will not be allowed to recover these costs.

Recently the Court of Appeal had to consider the interpretation of the lease in Freeholders of 69 Marina, St. Leonards-on-Sea –Robinson, Simpson and Palmer v John Oram and Mohammed Goorun [2011] EWCA Civ 1258 .

In this case the freeholder had brought proceedings in the LVT to determine the reasonableness of the service charge and subsequently looked to recover the costs. Proceedings were issued in the County Court who determined at first instance that the costs were recoverable under clause 3(12) of the lease which said:

“pay all expenses including solicitors’ costs and surveyors’ fees incurred by the landlord incidental to the preparation and service of a notice under section 146 of the Law of Property Act 1925 or incurred in or in contemplation of proceedings under section 146 or 147 of the Act…. and to pay all expenses including solicitors’ costs and surveyors’ fees incurred by the landlord of and incidental to the service of all notices and schedules relating to wants of repair of the premises…..”

The District Judges findings were upheld at first instance by the Circuit Judge but the leaseholders appealed to the Court of Appeal. The appeal was dismissed as the Court of Appeal determined that clearly the Landlord had incurred costs in undertaking repairs etc and under section 81 of the Housing Act 1996 an application to the LVT is a necessary pre condition of the forfeiture process.

An interesting decision making clear that the Court will give a broad interpretation to these clauses to allow Landlords to recover costs

Filed under: England & Wales, , , , , ,

“Why Do I Need Court Proceedings? And What Do These Involve?

Many of our readers will know why there is a need to obtain a Court Order to evict residential tenants however for those that do not we hope the below helps.

If someone is occupying a residential property whether lawfully or not then an Order of the Court is required (a Possession Order) which generally can only be enforced by County Court bailiffs or Sheriffs Officers. This is true of squatters and tenants but this blog post is limited to tenants. If you evict a Residential Tenant from their home without a Court Order you can find yourself as Landlord (or others who assist in this such as an agent) liable to both civil action for damages and a right of re-entry from the tenant and also possibly criminal prosecution under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 which can render you liable for a fine or in severe cases a custodial sentence. For these reasons alone it is vital that the correct procedure is adopted to avoid such penalties.

If therefore the Landlord wants to get his or her tenant out he should make sure he follows the correct process. The starting point will be the tenancy agreement itself to see on what basis the tenant can be evicted. If the Landlord simply wants the property back and there are no major breaches then generally the fixed term will need to be ending or for the agreement to have a break clause which the landlord can rely upon. Most types of residential tenancy require some form of notice most usually a s.21 notice and for others some form of Notice to Quit.

If there are breaches of the agreement itself such as none payment of rent then different notices may need to be served such as a s.8 notice for assured tenancies (including Assured Shorthold Tenancies).

Once the notice has expired an application can be made to the Court. Usually this will be the County Court local to the tenanted property. Whilst you can apply for possession through the accelerated (a misnomer!) process where you have a expired s.21 in the case of a s.8 or where you wish to seek costs, rent arrears and interest as well as possession pursuant to the expired s.21 then you will be listed for a first hearing. This should be within 8 weeks of issue but we have experienced recently delays which we have posted about. At the hearing if the Judge is satisfied that you have complied with the rules then unless your tenants have a Defence you should obtain a Possession Order. This will usually be for either 14 or 28 days but the Court can extend the time up to a maximum of 42 days.

Once you have this Order the tenants should vacate by the date given, if they do not then you will have to apply to the Court for a bailiff appointment. This will then be listed and again usually within about 4-6 weeks. Whilst the bailiff does not have power to use force to evict the Tenants in our experience we have found that the bailiffs are very effective at doing their job and persuading tenants to leave.

It is perhaps worth highlighting a point we have made in previous blogs given the current state of the economy. We are seeing more and more tenants who are approaching the Local Authority to be rehoused once given notice by their Landlord. Sadly most Local Authorities will not properly consider the tenants request for re-housing until a date has been fixed for the bailiffs appointment and the tenants themselves will be advised that if they vacate before-hand then they will have made themselves voluntarily homeless and the Local Authority will not assist.

So once the bailiff has executed the warrant the landlord will hopefully gain possession to relet his or her property to another.

It is important that all the way through you get the process right. If not then the whole procedure can be delayed substantially and the costs for the Landlord can escalate. This blog assumes no defence has been lodged and only gives a brief overview.

We appreciate that Landlords often at the time of evicting a tenant wish to limit their financial exposure and hence we offer a capped price eviction service but it can often be a false economy to not take advice on the whole process at the outset!

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, , , , , , ,

Back to Basics 4: Section 21

A section 21 notice is not a notice to quit. Many people that call the helpline refer to a section 21 as a notice to quit even today and it’s not, so stop it!

A section 21 notice is used by the landlord when he wishes to gain back possession of the property at the end of an assured shorthold tenancy, pursuant to a break clause or even where the tenant is in the periodic period of the tenancy. There are two types of section 21 notices that a landlord can serve on a tenant. The section 21(1)(b) notice and the section 21(4)(a) notice.

Although both notices refer to section 21 they should not be confused with each other especially given that have very different notice requirements. If the wrong notice is served and relied upon then it can delay or hinder possession proceedings.

Depending on whether the tenancy is either of a fixed term or a statutory periodic will depend on which notice a landlord will need to serve.

The Section 21(1)(b) Notice – Fixed Term:

A section 21(1)(b) is served during the fixed term of a tenancy. A landlord serving this notice must give not less than two months notice stating that he requires possession. The notice should specify a date “on” which the landlord requires possession. The notice cannot expire before the end of the fixed term unless the landlord is relying on a break clause in the tenancy agreement. Therefore a notice should not be dated to expire before the last day of the tenancy as this would make the notice invalid and whilst it could be dated to expire on the last day of the fixed term there are many out there that believe that dating the notice to expire on the last day makes the notice invalid. We at PainSmith do not.

Other issues that need to be noted are that tenants have 6 months security of tenure and so a landlord can not issue court proceedings on a section 21 until the tenant has been in residence for 6 months. The other issue is that any notice served pursuant to a break clause should comply with the provisions of that break clause and then finally if the notice is served in the fixed term to expire in the periodic period it’s still a section 21 (1) (b) that needs to be served.

The Section 21(4)(a) Notice – Periodic Tenancies:

A section 21(4)(a) is served after the fixed term has expired when the tenancy is a statutory periodic tenancy. A landlord serving this notice must give two clear months notice stating that he requires possession and the day on which the notice expires must be at the end of a period of the tenancy. The section 21(4)(a) notice often causes the most confusion amongst landlords due to the fact that if the wrong date is specified on the notice then it becomes invalid. To avoid this pitfall it is vital that a landlord looks at the tenancy agreement to assess what the tenancy period is.

Some of you are aware that unlike a section 21(1)(b) a date need not be specified on the notice and instead the ‘saving provision’ can be used following the decision of Lower Street Properties Ltd v Jones however, rather oddly we still find some of you are dating the notice. Why complicate things?

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, , , , , , ,

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