[Ben Reeve Lewis explains why he is against prosecution for the sake of it, and boasts a full set of teeth … ]
This week’s inspiration comes from two sources.
Firstly, nobody in our field of interest could have avoided Jon Snow’s Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 about rogue landlords, even if you couldn’t be arsed to watch it. I did, but with a shrug and a loss of interest in the last 20 minutes because for me it was just like being at work. Which is why I don’t watch the misery-fest of fly on the wall shock docs……I work in it, I confess I ended up turning over and watched a re-run of desperate Housewives instead.
Secondly, I got involved in some post programme outraged twittering, which threw up a bit of confusion between me and a woman called Lisa Orme, (Hi Lisa) who couldn’t understand why I was against the Shelter campaign against rogue landlords, especially given that I earn my living by prosecuting them and, unbeknown to most, since 1998 I have been an occasional trainer of landlord & Tenant law for Shelter.
So why the resistance?
Well, I am not against prosecuting rogue landlords. That Safi geezer in Dispatches is depressingly common. Baseball bats and harassment is standard stuff in my neck of the woods. I know decent landlords, who outnumber the rogues massively hate what the Safi’s of the world do to their reputation but there are loads out there. Sad but true. I have no compunction in taking them to the cleaners but Shelter’s campaign seeks to tar too many people with the same brush.
For a while now Shelter has been asking for information from local authorities about how they deal with harassment and illegal eviction. I have their questionnaire on my desk right now and what irks me is that the way the questions are set out you can’t do anything but either look like you are doing a great job or a shit one.
Put simply, they want to know how many complaints you have dealt with and how many prosecutions you have taken out. As if prosecutions are the only way to deal with complaints, and if you don’t prosecute, you are failing in your duties of care to the community who pays you.
Prosecution is not the only deterrent
I hate to sound like a broken record…..and a Rambo style one at that, but I have dealt with stabbings, shootings, even throat cuttings by landlords on their tenants but the vast majority of cases of harassment and illegal eviction that I deal with are low level stuff, committed by desperate people, amateur landlords ignorant of the law, not thugs.
The thugs I will deal with. As a TRO I can have landlords arrested and personally specialise in taking out injunctions against the most violent ones, which I have to do about 5 times a month, my colleague does the same…..that’s how common it is. I must be good because I still have all my teeth. But most aren’t that bad, so why is prosecution seen as the only deterrent?
Shapps’s crew ditched the Rugg recommendations when they got in, saying there were enough legal deterrents already in place and that the onus was on local authority’s to pursue those aims, Shelter jumped on that pronouncement. But what do you do when a tenant owes £3,000 rent arrears to a small landlord, whose property is about to be repossessed because they can’t meet the mortgage, on the basis of an arguable claim for disrepair? Just take the tenant’s side and prosecute anyway when both parties are about to lose their homes?
Criminal prosecutions under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 are what I get paid for but who benefits from this? The tenant? The landlord gets fined but the tenants gets nothing out of it usually, that’s even if you can persuade a magistrate to take it seriously enough to levy a full fine, which they rarely do.
The landlord? An amateur getting out of their depth, are they really cast from the same mould as Peter Rachman and Nicholas Van Hoogstraaten?
I have the greatest respect for the work that Shelter do, and I follow their director Campbell Robb whose views I totally agree with but I don’t agree that the rate of local authority prosecutions shows that the problem is being contained.
My individual approach is to get the landlord and the tenant around the table whenever I can. Get them to understand each other’s lives, see each other as human beings.
I have a theory, that there are 2 ways to be a landlord:-
Hands off: These are the property professionals. As a tenant you never meet them but when you call up about a repair it gets done, no quibbles. If you get into rent arrears all the relevant paperwork is in place and everything is done by the book.
Hands on: There is a relationship between landlord and tenant. The tenant hits a bad spot, the landlord cuts some slack. The landlord has a BBQ and invites the tenant. The tenant understands the landlord’s financial situation.
Both of these approaches work, depending on the personality and individual style of the parties involved.
Regular readers will know that I am currently (reluctantly) a tenant. In the past I have also been a landlord. My current landlord is type 1, and that suits me right now, it makes me feel secure. When I was a landlord I was type 2, because that suited my style and my ex tenant, (who for a year, after a relationship breakdown, became my landlord) I now count as one of my closest friends.
The small minority
Shelter are quite right to promote the prosecution of genuine rogue landlords, the Safis of the world, boasting on Dispatches about knocking people’s teeth out and that vile female assistant of his whose views were, if anything, even worse, and that builder/surveyor who professed a dislike of what he was doing but kept saying “that’s business innit?”.
But even in South East London they really do represent a small minority not just of landlords but also of rogue landlords too. Most rogue landlords I meet do daft things out of desperation and ignorance, not a general pre-disposition to violent behaviour.
The real problem
The real enemy in all this is just ignorance of the legalities and complexities of letting, which is ridiculously complicated. Great for my training income but not for landlords and tenants trying to get by. I would love to see my role change from being a prosecutor to a mediator. Someone who occasionally bangs heads together but whose overall role is to help landlords and tenants understand each other.
Ben Reeve Lewis
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