Landlord won’t sort your mould problem? Tell them you’ll see them in court ❤️
Renting, as any tenant will tell you, is hell. It’s rare that you’ll find a renter who has never a) lived in a room ridden with damp, b) had £200 knocked off their deposit for a speck of grease left in the back of the oven, or c) had their landlord enter their home unannounced. Or, if you’re really unlucky, d) all of the above.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to come across a landlord who isn’t dodgy – or even downright criminal. But, as much as your landlord might act otherwise, tenants do have rights enshrined in law. And if your landlord has done any (or all) of the above, it’s possible that you could take them to court – and win.
In recent years, many young renters have been standing up to exploitative slumlords. Back in 2019, ‘the Leeds Five’ took their landlord to court after a visit from a housing officer revealed that their property was an unlicensed House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) – meaning their landlord was unlawfully renting the property to them. They won £15,00 of their rent back.
In early 2021, Griff Ferris and his flatmates were threatened by an illegal eviction – like the Leeds Five case, their landlord had also failed to acquire an HMO licence. They met with and challenged their landlord, and were awarded five months’ worth of rent in compensation.
Most recently, in late 2021, 19-year-old law student Jack Simm sued the company behind Velocity Student Accommodation after he moved into halls which resembled “a construction site”, with no heating or WiFi. He won over £800 to cover his rent and deposit, and the landlord was also required to cover Simm’s legal fees.
Destroying your landlord in court might sound like the ultimate revenge fantasy, but it doesn’t have to be a far-flung dream. We spoke to Morgan Jones, who sued her landlord and won £15,000 last year, and tenants’ union Acorn about how you can take your landlord to court if they’ve infringed on your rights.
WHAT CAN YOU SUE YOUR LANDLORD FOR?
Lots! “We consistently see landlords violating a variety of tenants’ rights,” explains Acorn’s communications officer, Jack Yates. “But some of the most common instances are a failure to deliver vital repairs, outrageous deposit deductions, and illegal evictions. Landlords in these circumstances rely on tenants not knowing their rights, or at least not knowing how to enforce them.”
In March 2019, a new law was passed which allowed tenants to sue landlords who fail to provide a safe and healthy living environment or carry out necessary repairs or maintenance. For example: if your house is poorly insulated, the cold is affecting your health, and your landlord still refuses to fix the issue – you could be entitled to compensation. Other common issues which can negatively impact a tenant’s health include damp and mould. You can also sue a landlord for causing you emotional distress caused by housing disrepair.
“Our legal and political system is set up to protect the rich and their class interests, and it is important to keep this in mind before taking legal action” – Jack Yates
Your landlord can also be sued if they haven’t followed proper procedures, like putting your deposit into a protection scheme or getting a licence for an HMO. It came to light that Jones’ landlord had cut these corners after she and her flatmates were served an (illegal) Section 21 eviction notice. “After we left, he said he would only give us less than half of our deposit back, for spurious reasons,” she says. “We looked into the deposit more and realised it wasn't protected, and then into the licence – all because of this initial, smaller amount of money he wanted to take from us illegitimately.”
You can check if your property is licensed through your local council and ask your landlord or letting agent if they’ve protected your deposit (it’ll be with one of three schemes: Deposit Protection Service (DPS), Tenancy Deposit Scheme (TDS), or mydeposits). It’s worth noting too that if you’re living in an unlicensed HMO or your deposit hasn’t been protected, your landlord cannot legally evict you.
WHAT’S THE PROCESS LIKE?
OK, so you think you can sue your landlord. Now what?
Compiling evidence is key. “It’s vital that tenants document the issues they are having with their landlord. Taking pictures of things, communicating via email rather than over the phone, getting commitments in writing, and so on are all incredibly important,” Yates says.
How long will the process take? It varies – but you can expect it to take over a year. “We started procedures in early 2021, and settled by March 2022,” Jones recalls, explaining that getting the ball rolling was fairly straightforward as they had a “clean cut” case. “We had to submit some witness statements and quite an extensive set of documents, but beyond that, it was mostly a process of waiting for responses for things we had sent.”
ARE THERE ANY RISKS WITH SUING A LANDLORD?
You may have to stump up for legal fees, and there’s always a risk that you could lose your case. “In many cases, there is a financial risk to suing a landlord as there is no guarantee of victory, and in many cases even if you do win your legal fees may not be covered,” Yates explains. “Free housing advice services are in decline and lawyers are prohibitively expensive: most private renters have no savings and struggle to pay for legal support.”
“Our legal and political system is set up to protect the rich and their class interests, and it is important to keep this in mind before taking legal action,” he continues. “This, of course, isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do it! But it’s important to ensure that your case is as watertight as possible.”
Jones’ own case was pretty “black and white”, meaning the chances of her landlord winning were slim. (You’re either living in a licenced HMO or you’re not, for example, and your local council will be able to confirm this for you). “For cases where there is a clear breach on behalf of the landlord, it is very much worth doing and there are few risks,” Jones says.
WHERE CAN TENANTS GO FOR SUPPORT WITH SUING A LANDLORD?
“It’s important for tenants to recognise that they’re not alone in this,” Yates says. “There are plenty of organisations – such as Shelter – that will offer legal advice, and direct action organisations like Acorn that will utilise collective power and strength in numbers to enforce your rights as a tenant outside of court.”
If you’d like some extra support or pro bono representation, there are lots of organisations out there which can help you. There’s Justice for Tenants, which represented Jones and her flatmates, but also other tenants’ rights groups like Flat Justice. Charities like Shelter can also offer tenants advice and support. For further information, you could also get in touch with Law Works or contact Citizens Advice.