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Civil Penalties and Private Landlords: New Rules

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Since the Housing and Planning Act of 2016 came into force in April of this year, private landlords have already started to be fined by local authorities. One of the first local government interventions using the new legal framework came about just 20 days after the ability to levy these new civil penalties came into force.

Since the Housing and Planning Act of 2016 came into force in April of this year, private landlords have already started to be fined by local authorities. One of the first local government interventions using the new legal framework came about just 20 days after the ability to levy these new civil penalties came into force. The London Borough of Newham used a civil penalty notice to fine a private landlord in East London because he had failed to install adequate fire alarms in a block of flats he was letting. Crucially, this meant that there was no need for a lengthy court action which would have been brought at the taxpayer's expense.

Although the £5,000 civil penalty that was levied against the landlord in question was a single case, the fact that local authorities in the South East of England are now using them – and are apparently keen to do so – means that there are implications for private landlords in Portsmouth and elsewhere. From Fareham to Southsea, landlords will now need to reconsider all of their obligations to the health and safety of tenants if they want to ensure that what could be hefty fines are to be avoided.

Of course, most landlords in the area are highly reputable and will appoint a professional letting agent to take care of any matters that need addressing on a day-to-day basis. However, in the past, there was a good deal of time that landlords could take to put in place remedial measures. This is because actions brought about by councils or the tenants themselves for failing to comply with a notice needed to be brought before the County Court as part of a civil proceeding. Any order that might be issued needed to be ruled upon by a judge and landlords always had a chance to defend themselves, either in person or through professional legal representation.

Since the new regulations came into force, landlords face a new world in which council officers can decide to issue a civil financial penalty under their own auspices. As such, it is better to be prepared for potential problems and to take actions before any inspections are made. Although the legislation is designed to focus on so-called 'rogue landlords', it is not yet known how enforcement will be rolled out and the degree to which different local authorities intend to use their new powers. In the case of Newham, it appears to be the case that the health and safety of tenants is the highest priority.

“Our swift adoption and application of the new powers underlines... [the council's] commitment to protecting tenants… In this case, there was a single breach of the law but by failing to install fire alarms... this particular landlord showed a reckless lack of care for safety,” said a council spokesperson about the Newham case.

In fairness, landlords who are established in the business of letting properties professionally and have been doing so for a number of years probably have nothing to fear from the new legal powers councils in England have. The problems are more likely to occur with landlords who are new to the buy-to-let market or who choose to go it alone without the advice of professional letting agents who can advise them on all of their legal responsibilities.

Nevertheless, all landlords need to take on board the fact that these regulations can be used in a way that has not been possible before. Some landlords entire business can be put at risk if they were to face the maximum level of penalty allowed under the legislation. The Act allows for fines of £30,000 to be raised against landlords in the worst cases. It is even possible that multiple fines at this level could be levied where breaches of law are found across several different properties.

The legislation allows civil penalties to be raised against landlords for a number of offences, such as failing to comply with an improvement notice that has previously been issued by the council or its appointed agency. Various licensing issues for landlords letting houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) can also lead to civil penalties. In addition, offences that relate selective licensing under part 3 of the Housing Act of 2004 are covered under the rules. Finally, contravening an overcrowding notice may also result in an on-the-spot fine of this type.

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Sources

https://www.lettingagenttoday.co.uk/breaking-news/2017/5/london-council-issues-first-lettings-sector-civil-penalty
https://www.rla.org.uk/landlord/guides/civil-penalties-for-landlords.shtml