Policing Illegal Eviction - an old problem gets a new(ish) solution?

Close Up Detail Of The Scales Of Justice 2021 08 27 16 37 29 Utc

Illegal eviction was in both the national and the property press recently, following the news that the Metropolitan Police was to instruct its officers to “start arresting landlords who illegally and sometimes violently evict tenants.”

The largest police force in the country will also be issuing officers with updated guidance which includes a presumption that, if officers are called to an incident involving residential eviction, that eviction is likely to be illegal.

This guidance (a simple, straightforward, 2 page document) has been drawn up in collaboration with the tenant support organisations Safer Renting and Generation Rent and, though it’s possible to come across ‘below the line’ comments from some members of the PRS landlord community decrying this news, most good landlords and certainly all local authority housing enforcement and tenancy relations officers will accept the rationale for this development. In the case of local authority officers this acceptance likely will be accompanied by a sense of relief.

Relief because, historically, frontline police officers dealing with an eviction (absent real time guidance or direction from council officers) can be, more often than not, a problem for local authority PRS housing teams - a problem not restricted to the Met’s beat across London but experienced by councils up and down the land.

To be fair to the police, the so called “bias” of officers in favour of a landlord they may be interacting with during an eviction is, to an extent, a built in outcome of the perceived place of illegal eviction in the legal system. A criminal offence (along with associated harassment), under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, with a potential public order/violence element, but which is generally prosecuted by the local authority (rather than the police/CPS) in its role of protecting the rights of the tenant and not in a role as guardian of public order.

Police officers, as many housing enforcement teams know, have often regarded the matter as ‘simply’ a civil law issue (housing and contract law) and will, at best, if there is no physical violence taking place, not involve themselves further in an incident or, at worst, will support the landlord (students of Sociology and ‘power dynamics’ will be aware of this phenomenon) and tell the tenant to leave. As the news report referenced at the top of this piece points out: “In 24 cases in which the police were called to illegal evictions in the last year and where Safer Renting helped tenants, officers stopped only two. In eight cases, officers either endorsed the eviction as lawful or actively helped the landlord. In 11 cases, police declared it a civil matter and refused to attend three times.” And, as of 2018, a question to the Mayor of London showed that at that time, the Met still flagged illegal eviction up as a “Civil Dispute” though, by 2019, the Met had confirmed that officers would be receiving training on dealing with illegal eviction incidents and, by January 2022 in response to a further question, it was confirmed that Met officer recruits were being trained or had received training (2,207 new officers) in this area though no figure was given for the over 34,000 already serving officers.

Of course, there is (anecdotally) the possibility, in extremis, of council officers (if they become aware of an ongoing situation but are not present at the time) telling attending police officers that they themselves, if they do not support the tenant, could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a landlord in the commission of the offence. But, even if that threat could be realised (which might make for arresting headlines the next day), it could only ever be a tactic in an individual case, not a strategy for dealing with illegal eviction, and incorrect policing of it, as a phenomenon.

A major issue when discussing illegal eviction and harassment is the dearth of actual real world statistics on the problem. According to the English Housing Survey 2020-21 report on the private rented sector (Annex table 1.27), around 39,000 PRS renters did not make a complaint, about an issue with their home, to their landlord/agent because they were worried about some form of ‘retaliation’ from the landlord. Obviously that figure does not mean all of those renters were worried about illegal eviction or harassment specifically. Many would be worried about being evicted legally via their landlord issuing a section 21 no fault notice. But, there would be a number within that cohort who likely would be fairly certain that they could risk an illegal eviction by their particular landlord.

The report, however, is an extrapolation based on survey results garnered from interviews with a sample of PRS tenants - in the case of the 2020-21 survey interviews, the PRS sample amounted to 900 households (still statistically valid but, not helped by Covid-19 restrictions lowering that figure slightly further) with no ‘housing history’ questions that touched on actual illegal eviction/harassment experiences.

As with the Housing Survey, other sources of statistics are also estimates extrapolated from survey numbers. For example, a 2016 report by Shelter on the real world experiences of private renters at the hands of rogue landlords highlighted that, based on a survey of 3,250 PRS households, 0.60% had experienced their belongings being thrown out of their home and the locks changed by the landlord. Extrapolated across the privately renting population as a whole, this amounted to an estimated 49,500 households experiencing such behaviour. Or rather, 0.60% of the survey respondents is the “equivalent” of 49,500 across the whole sector.

The 24 illegal eviction cases quoted above by Safer Renting in the Guardian work out, give or take, at a (slightly) greater number than the 0.60% in Shelter’s 2016 survey figures but a case we reported on in 2022 points to one hurdle for local authorities to jump on the path to more prosecutions - costs. In that case, a successful prosecution taken by Thanet District Council which involved some shocking violence on the part of the landlord and their associates, the costs order made at the sentencing hearing in favour of the council was in the amount of £200,000. It took 3 years of ‘tireless’ work by the council’s private sector housing team to investigate and get successful convictions of the perpetrators - a financial and staffing capacity risk that many, especially smaller, local authorities might find difficult to commit to except in ‘slam dunk’ cases.

The conclusion by the authors (including Dr Julie Rugg of University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy) of a 2022 report on the Protection from Eviction Act (using real world case count figures from several sources including the Ministry of Justice and CAB) states that “... the number of prosecutions under the Act is less an indicator of the scale of offences, and more an indicator of local authority willingness to take action …. around half the prosecutions in England under the [Act] were being undertaken in just two police force areas (South Yorkshire and Metropolitan Police) of the 41 areas listed” and “in England in 2020, where it is likely that there were well over 7000 offences under the [Act] reported to named advice agencies, a total of 12 landlords were prosecuted and convicted under this legislation.”

The final line of the conclusion says, tellingly, “Prosecution figures indicate that the severity of this crime has not been recognised by the Criminal Justice system, and raises questions as to the adequacy of the PfEA as a protective measure.”

So, given this likely real world under reporting of and under enforcement against illegal eviction and harassment, the guidance issued and training provided to police officers is nowhere near a ‘solution’ to this old problem. What is new is the headline grabbing strong emphasis given to both the power and the willingness to arrest a landlord (the power was already there anyway). But, thus far, it seems this guidance is only mentioned by reference to its use by the Met when actually, it should be distributed to every police force in the country.

In local authority areas with selective licensing or additional licensing schemes there is usually close liaison between council private rented sector housing teams and local police officers so there is scope for this guidance to be disseminated via that liaison route. Where a local authority employs tenancy relations officers then those officers will likely have built up relationships with local police officers, so that is another route. In areas without licensing or TROs then housing enforcement teams should look at ensuring distribution of this illegal eviction guidance to their neighbourhood police teams as part of their everyday Homelessness Prevention work. In this era of constrained resources it’s one resource tool that is at least cheap and easy - and not just for the biggest police force in the country.

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