Painsmith Landlord and Tenant Blog

A practitioners landlord and tenant law blog from PainSmith Solicitors

Leasehold Valuation Tribunals, are they no cost forums?

Over the past year or so we have read some of the debate that has been ongoing over the recoverability of legal costs at the Leasehold Valuation Tribunal (LVT).

The starting point as with most Tribunals in England and Wales is that they are a none costs shifting forum which in simple terms means that each party is responsible for their own costs and the Tribunal will not order the losing party to pay the other sides costs. This means that any costs which either side incurs will be for them themselves to pay. In the LVT under the current rules (which are due to change in July when the LVT becomes part of the new Lower Tribunal (Lands Chamber)) if a party has behaved vexatiously or unreasonably the LVT can order that that party pays to the other side up to £500 towards any costs which have been incurred. Such Orders are rare.

The situation is however muddied in that in disputes before the LVT, which will inevitably involve Leaseholders and Freeholders, there will be a contractual relationship between the parties being the lease. Often leases will include a clause allowing a Freeholder to recover legal costs in connection with disputed service charges as a management expense. If so it may be recovered under the service charge and so even though the Freeholder has perhaps “lost” at the LVT the costs they have incurred can be recovered from all the Leaseholders. Also some leases contain clauses that allow a Freeholder in certain circumstances to recover LVT costs directly from any one Leaseholder who sought to bring a challenge as an Administration Charge.

What this means is that Leaseholders as we have said in previous posts need to carefully consider what the terms of their leases provide. If the lease does not allow recovery then the risk may only be the £500 if a Freeholder can satisfy an LVT that conduct was frivolous or unreasonable but care needs to be taken.

So what can Leaseholders do? It is important to remember that LVTs are simply creatures of statute and so have to operate within the framework that Parliament has laid down for them. Certain safeguards are in place. In particular it is possible for Leaseholders to make an application under section 20C of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 to seek limitation of the costs which a Freeholder can recover as a service charge expense. The LVT has broad powers and discretion. It is vital that Leaseholders make such an application and think carefully about the reasons. These do not simply have to be limited as to whether they win (since submissions will often be made before the LVT has issued its decision) but should explain why the application was necessary to be made or responded to and in what ways the Freeholder may have been unreasonable such as failing to enter into constructive dialogue etc.

The LVT can then look to make such an Order. This may prevent the recovery of whole or part or even fix the amount which can be recovered. This would then bind a Freeholder in respect of recovery via the service charges whatever the terms of the lease may provide. If however the LVT declines to make an Order the Leaseholder can still challenge the reasonableness although this challenge itself may incur costs.

With regards to recovery from a Leaseholder directly this would be an Administration charge and again can be challenged as to reasonableness and the payability via the LVT. For challenges of this type it is worth taking advice on the specific terms of the lease and what may be considered reasonable. This will involve looking at the specific lease terms and then going on to look at the circumstances as to how the costs were incurred and what work was undertaken.

As can be seen in terms of the rules of the LVT it is fundamentally a no costs forum (and the change in July to the new Tribunal is not likely to fundamentally change this). The problem is that everyone is bound by their lease terms as to what can be recovered. In the throes of purchasing a property all too little time is often given to looking at what can and cannot be recovered under a service charge. A good understanding as to the terms of your lease and your ownership can prove worth its weight in the long run.

Filed under: England & Wales, , , , ,

Not another Deposit case!

Taking six months’ rent up front is not a deposit, the Court of Appeal has ruled in Johnson & Ors v Old [2013] EWCA Civ 415.

The facts will strike chords with many agents and landlords: the rent was expressed to be £950.00 per month, payable in advance (standard AST practice), with the first six months’ rent to be paid “up front” (also common practice for example where a tenant might have failed a credit check). When the landlord brought possession proceedings the judge at first instance threw the case out on the basis that the six months’ rent up front was a security deposit, which had not been registered and that therefore the section 21 notice was not valid. The landlord appealed and won; the tenant then appealed to the Court of Appeal, which is where we are today.

The key issues included whether the rent paid six months up front was money held as security against future rent payment dates (the tenancy agreement made reference to the rent due date being the first of every month). If so, the tenant argued, it was a deposit as defined in S212(8) Housing Act 2004 and fell to be protected, which it had not been.

The Court of Appeal hearing the tenant’s appeal was unequivocal: the money paid was rent, and not “money intended to be held as security for the performance of any obligations of the tenant or the discharge of any liability of his, arising under or in connection with the tenancy”. The point was tested by “asking, rhetorically, how the tenant would have responded to a demand on 1 September 2010, for rent in respect of the month of September 2010……her answer would have been “why are you asking me for rent which I have already paid?”….”

The court also gave short shrift to the idea that, as the agent held onto the money and drip fed it in monthly payments to the Landlord, the money held by the agent was a deposit. The Court found that the rent was paid over by the tenant, and the arrangements between the agent and landlord about how the monies were transferred was neither here nor there.

So what are the implications of this decision? The position remains as we have been advising agents and landlords to date: rent in advance does not constitute a deposit in need of protection. With the above being said, it is always advisable to have clear and well drafted tenancy agreement that all parties can follow.

It is important to differentiate this case from another common scenario: where an extra payment (usually a month’s rent) is received and held in case the tenant defaults on a rental payment during the tenancy but would be paid back. This is a deposit. Rent taken at the beginning of a tenancy in respect of the last month of a tenancy is not a deposit but an amount taken at the beginning to be applied in the event that there is any default is.

Filed under: England & Wales, , , ,

HMO mandatory licensing- calculating storeys

London Borough of Islington v The Unite Group Plc [2013] EWHC 508 (Admin)

Thanks again to David Smith and our friends at Nearly Legal for drawing this recent case to our attention. NL has summarised the case comprehensively here so the below is a quick overview.

The High Court in this case has clarified the rules on calculating the number of storeys of a property in a block of flats. This is important in order to determine whether a particular property falls into the mandatory licensing category.
The building in the case in question contained a number of flats over more than 3 storeys. Each flat comprised of one storey with up to six student occupiers in each flat – what you might describe as a standard HMO. The ground floor of the building was used as business premises.

The Court was asked to determine whether these flats were HMOs that required licensing. The statutory requirements are that if an HMO or any part of it comprises three storeys or more and it is occupied by five or more persons and those persons form two or more single households, then the HMO must be licensed.

The high court found that “it is the HMO that must comprise the three storeys and not the building in which an HMO happens to be found”.

So, where living accommodation is in a part of a building above or below business premises you must take into account each storey comprising the business premises. Where a series of self-contained flats sit above commercial premises, you count the commercial premises in your calculation and the number of storeys in the flat itself, not the building.

The case should make it simpler to calculate whether an HMO falls into the mandatory licensing category and should release many landlords from the requirement to license self-contained single storey flats that sit in a block. However, since failure to have a licence when required has such severe consequences including prosecution, fine and rent repayment orders, if in doubt do seek guidance from the local authority (armed with a print out of the high court ruling to wave at them if necessary).

This ruling contrasts with the case of R v Roderick John Williams 2008 but as a High Court decision will take precedence. In Mr Williams’ case, he was successfully prosecuted for having an unlicensed HMO. This HMO actually covered two storeys but it sat on top of a basement flat and the court decided that under the Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (Prescribed Description) (England) Order 2006 [link] the two storey flat had to be calculated as having three storeys as it sat over a one storey flat.

Filed under: England & Wales, , , ,

Deposit News

1 April 2013 has seen more changes to deposit protection.

There are now four authorised schemes: TDS, DPS and mydeposits have been joined by Capita tenacy deposit protection scheme . This is an insurance based, rather than custodial scheme, meaning that the deposit is held by the agent or landlord.

It’s all change in the established schemes too. TDS have relaxed their rules and have summarised the main changes on their own blog here and in pdf form here.

DPS has introduced an insurance based scheme. You can read about it here.

Mydeposits scheme in Northern Ireland went live on 1 April 2013. See their press release here.

Filed under: England & Wales, , , , ,

Categories

RSS CLG Housing What’s New

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 61 other followers

Have you tried the PainSmith toolbar?

Useful links and access to the PainSmith blog in a convenient toolbar within your web browser. Available from: painsmithlettingshelper.ourtoolbar.com/