Allerdale Borough Council (19 007 434)

Category : Housing > Private housing

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 17 Feb 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complained about the Council’s delay responding to reports of disrepair and an illegal eviction notice. The Council was at fault for the delay in responding to Ms X’s request for a property inspection, and for failing to refer details of the alleged illegal eviction notice to its housing team. This caused Ms X additional avoidable distress, frustration, and time and trouble.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complained about the Council’s delay in responding when she reported disrepair issues with her private rental property and that she was being made homeless as a result of an illegal eviction notice.
  2. This caused Ms X stress, uncertainty and time and trouble. As a result, Ms X said she had to move to a more expensive property.
  3. By way of a remedy, Ms X would like the Council to:
    1. Refund the tax she paid for January 2019 when she was unable to access her rented home.
    2. Pay financial compensation for the stress suffered and additional housing costs incurred as a result of the Council’s delays.
    3. Write to her ex-landlord warning them about their illegal eviction notice.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the Council’s response to Ms X’s report about disrepair and an alleged illegal eviction notice.
  2. I have not investigated the complaint about Council tax liability, as Ms X has a right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation I have considered the following:
    • The complaint and the documents provided by the complainant.
    • Documents provided by the Council and its comments in response to my enquiries.
    • Discussed the complaint with Ms X.
    • Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
    • The Housing Act 2004, Part 1.
    • The Housing Health and Safety Rating System.
  2. I wrote to Ms X and the Council with a draft of this decision and considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. Private landlords have a responsibility to make sure rented accommodation is maintained to a certain standard. This includes carrying out repairs.
  2. Private tenants can complain to the council if the landlord fails to keep the property in good repair. Councils can take enforcement action against private landlords if they identify a hazard placing the health and safety of the tenant at risk.
  3. Councils will try to deal with the problem informally first, but if this is unsuccessful, they have powers to require the landlord to make improvements or to issue the landlord with a fine.
  4. The Council’s private sector housing team undertake property inspections and will respond to residents’ complaints about substandard, unsafe and problematic private housing.
  5. It is a criminal offence for a landlord to evict a tenant without following the correct legal steps. Illegal eviction can include:
      • Forcing a tenant to leave by threatening or harassing them;
      • Physically removing them;
      • Stopping a tenant getting into parts of their home; and/or
      • Changing the locks.
  6. Private tenants can complain to the council if their landlord is harassing them or trying to evict them. Councils should offer tenants advice about their housing rights and options. Councils have powers to investigate and prosecute a landlord where they commit an offence.

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What happened

  1. Ms X moved into private rental accommodation with her tenancy starting on 27 October 2018.
  2. Following problems with disrepair and disagreements with the landlord, Ms X received an eviction notice by email from the landlord on 2 December 2018. I have seen a copy of landlord’s email. It gave Ms X two months’ notice to leave the house, with a move out date of 27 January 2019. The landlord said Ms X could leave sooner if she wished, and any rent paid would be reimbursed. The landlord also said they would contribute to the energy bill.
  3. Ms X says she first contacted the Council about the condition of her rental property and eviction notice on 11 December 2018. She said the Council did not get back in touch with her until 18 December 2018.
  4. An Environmental Health officer (officer 1) spoke to Ms X on 18 December. Officer 1 made a note of the call which confirms Ms X complained about damp in the property, faulty electrics, and windows not shutting properly. Ms X told officer 1 her landlord had given her notice to quit the property by the end of January 2019. Officer 1 told Ms X there is a certain procedure the landlord must go through for the eviction notice to be valid. Officer 1 told Ms X she would leave her details for an inspection to be arranged in the new year.
  5. Officer 1 went on maternity leave on 18 December 2018. They sent an email to their manager (officer 2) on 19 December, advising they did not get around to some cases. They would leave details for their replacement to contact them in the new year. Officer 1 gave no details of these cases.
  6. Ms X told me she looked for somewhere else to live but could only find a property where the rent was £100 a month more, as other landlords would not accept dogs. Ms X took out a new tenancy at another house on 31 December 2018.
  7. Ms X called the Council to report the issues again on 2 January 2019. Ms X also mentioned problems with guttering, central heating and smoke alarms. She asked for a site visit from an environmental officer.
  8. On 8 January 2019 officer 1 emailed officer 2 attaching a handover folder which they missed off the email dated 19 December. This provided details of Ms X’s complaint.
  9. Another Council officer (officer 3) tried to call Ms X on 10 January 2019 to discuss her complaint. They left a voicemail message. Ms X called the Council back on 11 January 2019 and spoke to officer 3. She was unhappy with the delay and because the Council had not done an inspection. She asked for details of the timescales the Council normally works to when responding to reports of disrepair, but officer 3 did not know. Officer 3 told Ms X the Council must contact the landlord before it could carry out an inspection. Ms X said she was unsure if she wished to continue as she was nervous about involving her landlord. Ms X asked for details of the Council’s complaints procedure.
  10. Officer 3 sent Ms X an email following their conversation. Officer 3 apologised for the delay in arranging an inspection and accepted it had taken too long. Officer 3 said they set a provisional date of 21 January 2019 for the inspection, but they must notify the landlord. Officer 3 asked Ms X to confirm she wished to continue.
  11. An internal email exchange between the officer 2 and officer 3 from 11 January 2019 states there are no set timescales for inspections of private rental property disrepair.
  12. Ms X’s former landlord broke in and repossessed the house in mid-January. Ms X still had belongings in the house but could not get them back as the landlord changed the locks.
  13. Ms X made a complaint to the Council on 3 February 2019. She said:
    • She received a letter from the council tax department telling her that her landlord told the Council Ms X did not give notice to quit the property and she is liable for council tax up to the end of January.
    • She contacted the Council on 11 December at 5.20pm. She left messages and voicemails as her landlord was trying to illegally evict her.
    • She was told by the Council it had powers under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 to investigate illegal eviction.
    • Her landlord emailed her on 2 December giving two months’ notice to leave. The landlord said Ms X could leave sooner and offered to repay overpaid rent and contribute to the energy bill.
    • The Council did not return Ms X’s call until 18 December at 5.21pm, minutes before the officer was going on maternity leave. She was told someone would act as a priority on 2 January 2019.
    • The last time she was in the property was 4 January 2019. She returned to collect belongings on 13 January to find the landlord had changed the locks.
    • There was a great delay in dealing with her urgent enquiry and this led to her having no choice but to find alternative accommodation.
    • She should not be liable for tax on a property which was illegally repossessed.
    • The result may have been different if the Council had dealt with her urgent enquiry in a timelier manner.
  14. Officer 2 responded to Ms X on 6 February. Officer 2 asked Ms X for details of the landlord, the property, and evidence of the early eviction notice. Ms X said she provided the text of the eviction notice in her complaint form, and would have given the Council the original email had she been asked to.
  15. Ms X contacted the Council again on 7 February 2019 to follow up on her complaint. She said:
    • The officer she spoke to on 6 February 2019 repeatedly said she was now in accommodation and asked if she was happy – they did not ask about her financial position following an unexpected house move caused by illegal actions of her landlord.
    • She has suffered financial impact because of the Council’s failure to direct her to the correct officers and lack of a timely response.
    • As well as contacting the Council about illegal eviction, Ms X had concerns about safety issues in the property. Her first call was on 11 December 2018, but the earliest inspection offered was 21 January 2019.
    • She has still not been told the Council’s policy on recording and responding to complaints.
    • She did not want any correspondence to go to her landlord without her approval.
    • She is willing to pay council tax up to 4 January 2019, and further dates, if she is provided evidence from the landlord of the date they carried out the illegal repossession.
    • The eviction email was not an agreement, she had no choice. She was never paid back rent for January 2019 as promised, or compensation for the electricity bill.
    • She sought a copy of an email from the case officer she spoke with on 18 December 2018 and their report about her case which was written before the officer went on maternity leave so she can see which departments it was referred to.
  16. Officer 2 responded to Ms X on 8 February 2019. They said:
    • The council tax department was aware of the issue of locks being changed by the landlord at Ms X’s former property and they will be in touch about her council tax contribution.
    • The housing team will send a letter to the landlord about the early eviction notice and will be in touch with Ms X before sending the letter, and about trying to recover electricity and rent charges from the landlord.
  17. Officer 2 apologised for the delay in dealing with the issues Ms X reported. They were not made aware until a handover document from officer 1 was sent on 8 January 2019. Officer 2 said the Council would make service improvements to the way housing reports are triaged to stop a similar delay happening again.
  18. Ms X told me she had asked the Council to be made aware of any letters sent to her landlord. She said if the Council did write to her landlord about the early eviction notice she did not see the letter.
  19. Officer 2 emailed the housing team and the tax department on 8 February 2019.
  20. The email to the housing team confirms the issue should have been referred to them in the first instance when Ms X reported the eviction notice. A member of the housing team was asked to contact Ms X to discuss sending a letter to the landlord and providing further advice. The email confirms the officers had spoken about this on 6 February 2019.
  21. The email to the tax department confirms Ms X agreed to pay tax up to the date the landlord changed the locks. Officer 3 asked the tax department to look into this and add the details to Ms X’s formal complaint.
  22. The housing team tried to contact Ms X by telephone on 25 February 2019 but there was no answer. Ms X called back and explained she wanted to register for social housing. An appointment was made to carry out an assessment.
  23. Following the assessment, the Council wrote to Ms X on 12 March 2019 to confirm it did not owe any housing duty to her as she is not homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  24. Ms X telephoned officer 2 on 21 March about the council tax complaint. She left a voicemail. Officer 2 emailed Ms X to tell her she did not have access to the tax system and Ms X needed to telephone the tax department direct about this.
  25. Ms X contacted officer 2 on 30 April to chase the progress of her complaint as she said she had not heard anything. Officer 2 confirmed Ms X’s email address and sent copies of the emails dated 6 February, 8 February and 21 March 2019. It transpires the emails had not been delivered to Mrs X as they were addressed to the wrong email account.
  26. Ms X brought her complaint to the Ombudsman on 2 August 2019. She told me when she reported the disrepair and illegal eviction notice to the Council in December 2018, she wanted the Council to speak to her landlord to tell them of her right to stay in the property for at least six months. This would take the pressure off finding another home. She said she rang the Council repeatedly and was eventually told environmental health officers needed to do a housing inspection.

Response to enquiries

  1. The Council confirmed there was a delay responding to Ms X’s original enquiry because the officer left to go on maternity leave and information was not passed to the service manager straight away.
  2. The Council apologised to Ms X for this and reviewed its internal processes. A generic service inbox was set up to triage information despite the absence of key officers. It said this will improve speed and resilience of service.
  3. The Council said when it got in touch with Ms X about her enquiry she had left the property so there was no enforcement action to take. The Council also told me Ms X did not provide evidence of the eviction notice from her landlord.

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Analysis

  1. The Council has accepted there was a delay responding to Ms X’s request for an inspection of her rented home. The officer Ms X spoke to did not pass on details of Ms X’s request until about three weeks later. That was fault. The Council has apologised to Ms X for this.
  2. As well as the issue of disrepair, the officer who first spoke to Ms X was aware of her concerns over the eviction notice. The officer should have referred Ms X to the Council’s housing team. The Council has recognised this and apologised.
  3. The Council should have investigated to find out if the notice was illegal. It should have offered Ms X help in addressing the problem, including advice about her housing situation. That was fault.
  4. Thankfully Ms X found another house relatively quickly. Being served an eviction notice would be a stressful event anyway. However, Ms X suffered added avoidable distress, frustration, and time and trouble because of the Council’s fault. That is her injustice.
  5. I cannot ask the Council to warn Ms X’s former landlord, or prosecute them, about the eviction notice. Whether or not action is taken is a decision for the Council, based on the available evidence. I understand Ms X did not provide the evidence the Council requested. The fact the Council chose not to take action against Ms X’s former landlord is not a personal injustice to Ms X.
  6. When the Council responded to Ms X’s complaint and recognised it should have also referred her to its housing team, she had found another home. There was therefore no further help the Council could offer. I therefore cannot ask the Council to address the problem or offer advice and support. In the circumstances I consider a financial remedy is suitable.
  7. Ms X says due to the lack of Council response, she had no other choice than to look for alternative accommodation. This was Ms X’s choice and the Council is not responsible for decisions taken by others. I cannot say the delay in contacting Ms X directly caused her to take accommodation costing £100 more per month. I therefore cannot recommend the Council contribute to Ms X’s rent payments as part of the remedy.

Agreed action

  1. Within four weeks of my final decision the Council will pay Ms X £200 to recognise the added distress, frustration, and time and trouble its delays caused.
  2. The Council has provided evidence of its new triaging system for housing reports. We welcome the changes which will help to ensure enquiries are handled promptly and referred to the correct department.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. The Council was at fault for the delay in responding to Ms X’s request for a property inspection, and for failing to refer details of the alleged illegal eviction notice to its housing team. This caused Ms X additional avoidable distress, frustration, and time and trouble.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I did not investigate the complaint about Council tax liability, as Ms X has a right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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