Harassment

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Harassment

The law protects people living in residential property against harassment and illegal eviction.

It does this in two ways:

  • by making harassment and illegal eviction a criminal offence, and
     
  • by enabling someone who is harassed or illegally evicted to claim damages through the civil court.

This advice describes some of the forms harassment may take and sets out what people can do if they are being harassed or are threatened with illegal eviction.

Throughout this advice, (with some exceptions), the terms 'landlord' and 'tenant' are used. However, the law against harassment applies to all people living in residential property; it applies to them whether they have tenancies or licences, and it applies to the acts of anybody acting on behalf of a landlord and, in some cases, to people who may or may not be connected with a landlord.

The Protection from Eviction Act 1977

The law makes it an offence to:

  • do acts likely to interfere with the peace or comfort of a tenant or anyone living with him or her; or
     
  • persistently withdraw or withhold services for which the tenant has a reasonable need to live in the premises as a home.

It is an offence to do any of the things described above intending, knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, that they would cause the tenant to leave their home, or stop using part of it, or stop doing the things a tenant should normally expect to be able to do. It is also an offence to take someone's home away from him or her unlawfully.

The precise offences are set out in the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, which has been made stronger by the Housing Act 1988.

A person who is convicted by magistrates of an offence under the Act may have to pay a maximum fine of £5,000, or be sent to prison for six months, or both. If the case goes to the Crown Court, the punishment can be prison for up to two years, or a fine, or both.

What is harassment?

This advice deals only with harassment of people whom somebody is trying to drive out of their homes. Even in this context, harassment is a very broad term, used loosely to cover a wide range of activities. It can take many forms short of physical violence. It may not always be obvious to outsiders that particular sorts of activity are intended to drive the tenant from the property. On the other hand there may be cases where a landlord has good reasons for doing things which could be interpreted as harassment. There are defences in the Protection from Eviction and the Housing Acts for landlords who have good reason for acting in a particular way, or for thinking that the tenant had left the property.

A landlord, his or her agent, or someone who may or may not be connected with either of them, may do things which are distressing to the tenant and undermine their sense of security; these activities may or may not amount to harassment as it would be interpreted by the courts. Or the landlord may fail to do certain things supposed to be done under the tenancy agreement, either wilfully, because he or she wants the tenant to leave, or from simple neglect; this neglect might also prevent the tenant from enjoying his or her home. There are things the tenant can do in a wide range of circumstances, some of which are outlined below.

Where should a tenant go for advice?

A tenant who believes that an act or omission of the landlord's is being done so as to stop the tenant enjoying, or drive him or her out of the property, should speak to the local council. There may be a tenancy relations officer who can help or there may be someone in the housing or environmental health departments who specialises in harassment issues.

Alternatively, the tenant should seek advice from a law centre, a housing aid centre, a Citizens Advice Bureau or a solicitor. The addresses of advice organisations are usually listed in the telephone directory or the local library, or can be got from the local authority. If physical violence is involved, her or she should contact the police.

Local authorities have the power to start legal proceedings for offences of harassment and illegal eviction under the Protection from Eviction Act. If the evidence justifies it, they can carry out an investigation and prosecute if they believe an offence has been committed. In extreme cases of harassment, and where the property is in poor condition, a local authority may take over the management of a house in multiple occupation (that is, where the occupiers do not live together as a single household), by making it subject to a control order. A local authority also has compulsory purchase powers which it can use in certain circumstances where there is very bad harassment.

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