The figures suggest that housing disrepair claims are on the rise. With the legal definition of disrepair encompassing a range of inadequate living conditions in rental properties, including damp, wet and dry rot, and insecure windows and doors, it is easy to understand why tenants want their landlords to repair afflicted properties.
The legal framework surrounding housing disrepair aims to prompt landlords to carry out necessary repairs within a reasonable timescale and to discourage tenants from initiating court proceedings in pursuit of compensation as their primary response to a problem with their home. However, anecdotal reports suggest this approach is coming under increasing pressure from the claims management industry. Housing associations, in particular, are reporting huge leaps in the region of several hundred per cent to the volume of claims they are facing from their tenants. This can be explained in only one of two ways: either housing associations are becoming increasingly and worryingly lax when it comes to taking care of their properties or there is a move to swamp them with so many claims that it is easier – and cheaper – for them to settle.
Leaving aside the potential motives of the claims management industry and looking at matters from the points of view of both landlord and tenant it becomes possible to see that the two usually share a common goal: a secure, properly-maintained property. Both parties should be aware that save for some very limited exceptions, it is not possible for a landlord to contract out of their duty to keep the property in good repair and any attempt to do so via a rental agreement or otherwise is void. Although courts tend to be more lenient when it comes to expecting tenants to have kept comprehensive records of any issues, both parties should be scrupulous in keeping written records of communications with each other. From the tenant’s perspective, these records offer proof that they have alerted the landlord to a problem with the property. From the landlord’s perspective, paperwork demonstrating how and when they responded to disrepair issues may be all that stands between them and being forced to settle a case for a considerable sum. In particular, paper records can provide invaluable evidence of potentially mitigating factors, including thwarted efforts to gain access to a property to effect repairs.
It is clear that landlords of all stripes but particularly social housing providers who are most vulnerable to multiple claims ensure that their record-keeping is contemporaneous, accurate and retained for future reference.
Record-keeping and contractors
Landlords who rely on contractors to carry out work on their properties should also ensure that those contractors are aware of how housing disrepair claims tend to proceed in court. In particular, this means the matters that the court will take into consideration and how the evidence will be presented. The effectiveness of a contractor’s evidence is likely to rest at least partly on their record-keeping. This means that prudent landlords should stress the importance of keeping thorough written records and possibly consider making it form part of the tendering stage.
Looking to the future, if the government implements Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendation that recoverable costs in housing disrepair claims should be fixed in all fast track cases, the inevitable effect may be to reduce disrepair claims significantly. However, with the government’s attention currently very much on other matters and implementation of the proposed reforms not expected until late 2019, landlords must continue to remain on the alert.
Article from Louise Shawcross, Partner & Head of Housing Disrepair at Aticus Law.