It has been a criminal offence since 1964 for a landlord to harass or unlawfully evict an occupier who is legally entitled to be on the premises. This can include trespassers.
The Protection from Eviction Act 1977 was introduced to toughen the protection for tenants which were not considered satisfactory. This Act created an offence of harassment under S1 (3). If convicted a landlord could be subject to a penalty of up to a £5000 fine and 6 months in jail at Magistrates Court and an unlimited fine and up to 2 years in jail at Crown Court.
Definition of harassment
The Protection from Eviction Act 1977 defines harassment as: any act(s) likely to interfere with the peace or comfort of the residential occupier or any members of his or her family, or the persistent withdrawal of services reasonably needed for occupation. Offences under S1(3) can only be committed by the landlord or his agent who intend to cause the person to leave. There is no requirement to prove that the landlord intended the occupier to leave. Under S1(3A) the same offences can be committed by any person who knows or has reasonable cause to believe that this will make the occupier leave. There is a defence to S1(3A) if a landlord can prove that they had reasonable grounds for carrying out the acts.
The Criminal Law Act (1977) under section 6(2) of this act states that it is an offence for anyone ‘without lawful authority’ to use, or threaten to use, violence to gain entry to a property where someone is trying to prevent him form doing so. The police will normally prosecute a landlord under the Criminal Law Act.
However, criminal courts are not empowered to order a landlord to allow tenants back into a property. The 1988 Housing Act extended the offence of harassment, introducing a right to civil action for damages by wrongfully evicted occupiers. This piece of legislation introduced granted the tenant the right to sue for damages in the County Court.
This act allows tenants to either seek an injunction to restrain a landlord or to regain possession of a property. To bring proceedings a ‘cause of action’ is necessary which means that a landlord must be shown to have broken some rule of law by his actions and to have caused the tenant to suffer loss or harm because of this.
The basic remedy for breach of contract or tort will be damages or compensation for loss. These damages can amount to considerable sums of money. For actions under section 27 of the Housing Act (1988), (where a landlord commits acts resulting in a tenant giving up a property) section 28 requires that damages be assessed on the basis of the gain to the landlord, in an attempt to prevent landlords from profiting from their actions.
Claims in respect of harassment and illegal eviction have been deemed not suitable for the small claims procedure. Claims up to £15,000 will normally be referred to the new fast track procedure which aims to bring these claims to trial within 30 weeks of being allocated with only a limited amount of pre-trial preparation. The costs awarded at trial (which will not normally exceed one day) are fixed at no more than £750 for the advocate. A claim exceeding £15,000 will normally be allocated to the ‘multi-track’ which is a more flexible procedure where costs are recovered on the traditional standard or indemnity basis.