Painsmith Landlord and Tenant Blog

A practitioners landlord and tenant law blog from PainSmith Solicitors

Data Protection

We often get asked whether and in what circumstances landlords, tenants, agents and contractors can give out each other’s details of and those of other third parties. The main concern is not to breach the Data Protection Act 1998. Anyone who processes personal information must comply with eight principles of the Data Protection Act, which make sure that personal information is:
• Fairly and lawfully processed
• Processed for limited purposes
• Adequate, relevant and not excessive
• Accurate and up to date
• Not kept for longer than is necessary
• Processed in line with your rights
• Secure
• Not transferred to other countries without adequate protection

Unlawfully obtaining or accessing personal data is a criminal offence under s55 of the Date Protection Act 1998. Organisations processing personal information are required to register with the ICO. Failure to notify is a criminal offence. The ICO provides a checklist to organisations to check if they need to register. However lettings agents do generally process personal data ( e.g. tenants’ financial information) and if so should register.

There is a useful guide on the Information Commissioner’s website here.
Below is a list of the most common queries we get, and our answers
(with reasons).

1. Can an agent give out tenant referencing details to a landlord?
We say: Yes, the agent has collected the information as agent of the landlord, on behalf of the landlord. The Information Commission adds that the agent should make it clear to the tenants/guarantors that this will happen when the information is taken.

2. Can an agent give out landlord’s details to the tenant?
We say: It depends. If the tenant requests the landlord’s name and address in writing from the agent, section 1 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 requires that the agent must supply the tenant with that information within 21 days of receipt. Criminal sanctions apply for failure to comply. There is a duty to disclose the name and address of all directors and company secretary to a corporate landlord. However where not required by statute, an agent should get the landlord’s permission before handing information to the tenant.

3. Can an agent/landlord give out tenant details to utility companies where there are unpaid bills?
We say: Yes the utility company may need the forwarding address of the former tenant to recover unpaid bills, or to return funds. The information commissioner adds that there should be a clause in the tenancy agreement setting out that this may happen.

4. Can landlords give former tenants details to enquiry agents/tracing agents in order to recover unpaid rent/ issue debt proceedings?
We say: yes – but again the ICO says it is good practice to notify the tenants in the tenancy agreement that this might happen.

5. Can landlords/agents give tenant’s details to guarantors?
We say: only to the extent that it relates to the guarantee. So you need to see whether the information you are passing on relates to the guarantee (e.g. it would probably be relevant to say there are rental arrears but not to notify the guarantor that the tenants have had a baby and the date of birth and name of that baby, for example).

6. Can landlords/agents give tenant’s information to the Local Authority/ Police?
We say: again, it depends. Local Authorities do have powers to request personal information, and so do the Police. However they should be able to provide authority – to demonstrate that they have authority to ask, and that a landlord/agent has the duty to disclose.

7. If the tenant requests to see the tenancy file, does the agent have to disclose the entire file?
We say: No. The tenant should make a subject access request. The file belongs to the landlord. You do not have to supply information about other people. The agent should send a redacted copy and even then only needs to provide personal information. This does not mean the agent’s management log for example.

What are the sanctions for breaching the Data Protection Act? The Information Commission can order the offender to stop the breach. For serious breaches monetary penalties can be given and criminal prosecutions brought. See here: http://www.ico.org.uk/enforcement/prosecutions

In general the best place to go for those concerned about Data Protection is the ICO website. They have useful guides and checklists, as well as news and updates.

Filed under: England & Wales, , ,

Data Protection

A letting agent has been found guilty under section 55 of the Data Protection Act and the Criminal Attempts Act.

The agent was fined £200 and ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge and £728.60 prosecution costs by Highbury Magistrates Court.

The offence was uncovered in June 2011 when the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) received a call from the agent who was fraudulently trying to access the account of a tenant on benefits. The DWP investigated before reporting the matter to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

The agent had no authority to access the tenants’ information held by the DWP and it was only when the agent could not recall the tenant’s middle name that the DWP became suspicion.

Unlawfully obtaining or accessing personal data is a criminal offence under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. The offence is punishable by way of a financial penalty of up to £5,000 in a Magistrates Court or an unlimited fine in a Crown Court.

So what should you do if you want to check the details given to you by a tenant or potential tenant?

A signed letter of authority should be obtained from the tenant and then the DWP contacted to obtain the information you need. The DWP will want sight of the letter of authority which could be faxed before any telephone call.

Whilst the fine was small the agent and the company are no doubt having to deal with the publicity that this case has attracted. It simply is not worth it in such a competitive market and guidance can be sought on the ICO website.

Finally the Data Protection Act is likely to be replaced by the new General Date Protection Regulation which is likely to be introduced next year. Agents should take this seriously and should consider implementing changes if they are aware that staff is not adhering to the law as ‘strictly as they should’.

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

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – What it means to Managing Agents

We have received quite a few helpline queries about the above Act and whether or not agents can refuse to supply tenant’s personal information to the police.

The key obligations provided to an agent are covered by Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Essentially an agent is not responsible for drug activity in a property where a reasonable person in position of the same information would not have been aware of the drug use. Agents are not expected to be an expert in the detection of drug paraphernalia but if a property has items within it which are well known to be used in association with drugs it would be no defence to say that they were not aware of the drug activity. Therefore if an agent genuinely believes that there is drug use at a property the safest course of action is to simply report it to the police. However agents should also be careful not to simply accuse tenants of drug use because the tenant possesses cultural items that the agent does not understand.

An important associated question is whether agents have to release information requested by the police when they are not aware of any illegal activity. This is where the Data Protection Act 1988 plays an important part. The Data Protection Act does not prevent you from disclosing information to the police. There is a partial exemption that allows you to provide personal information in order to prevent or detect a crime, or catch and prosecute a criminal. The agent is unlikely to hold much personal information about the tenant which will assist in a police investigation. However the exemption only applies if a failure to disclose the information would hinder the police investigation. In addition, the exemption only permits disclosure of information that is genuinely needed by the police for their investigation. It is not acceptable to give the police unfettered access to files.

On a practical level a decision to disclose to the police should be taken at a level which is senior enough that it is clear that the issue is being given appropriate weight by the organisation. The police should be asked to be specific about what they require and an attendance note kept of precisely what information is disclosed and to whom.

The Information Commissioners Office has provided guidance on this issue.

Filed under: England & Wales, FLW Article, ,

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