In the light of a recent case Melanie Dirom considers a landlord’s duty of care to provide anti-social behaviour and complaints information.
In the case of TJ v London & Quadrant Housing Trust, the tenant (Ms J) was involved in a mutual exchange with the tenants of a flat in Finsbury Park. London & Quadrant Housing Trust (L&Q) were the landlords of the two flats in the building.
Before exchanging, the tenant asked Ms James, the housing officer at L&Q, on two separate occasions, if there had been any complaints of anti-social behaviour at the property. Ms James confirmed (twice) that there had not.
The mutual exchange went ahead and Ms J moved into the Finsbury Park flat. Soon after moving in she began suffering from racial abuse and noise nuisance from her neighbours. It later became apparent that L&Q had information about previous anti-social behaviour complaints on their system and were aware that the previous tenant had also suffered racist abuse from the other tenants in the building. On the advice of the police, Ms J left the property in April 2015 to move in with a relative but she retained the tenancy and continued paying rent. L&Q subsequently threatened Ms J with possession proceedings on basis of her not using the property as her main and principle home.
Ms J pursued legal action against L&Q claiming that she entered into the tenancy on the basis of L&Qs negligent misstatement. Her case was that it was a reasonable expectation that she would rely upon the housing officer’s responses when asked specific questions about ASB, and as such a duty of care was owed to her. Ms J claimed that had she known about the previous ASB she would never have proceeded with the mutual exchange and that L&Q had a duty to take reasonable care to answer the questions with reasonable accuracy.
After a three day trial, the Court held that by L&Q agreeing to answer the specific questions asked, there was a duty of care owed to Ms J and that L&Q should have answered the questions with such care as was reasonable and to provide information which was substantially accurate. Therefore L&Q were found to be liable for the negligent misstatement. Ms J was awarded £31,000.00 in damages.
The Court noted that the “Tackling Racial Harassment: code of practice for social landlords” states:
“Social landlords should always take any history of racial harassment into account when letting properties to black and minority ethnic applicants or offering transfer. Applicants should also be informed of any previous harassment in the area and be offered a package of support if the offer is accepted.”
How to avoid this pitfall
Social housing providers may well decide that they will simply refuse to answer questions which might be relied upon and caveat all information given. From a purely legal avoidance tact, this could well seem to be the clever approach but such “unhelpfulness” is likely to be in breach of the code of practice (especially when dealing with racial harassment) and could face criticism from the Regulator.
The best way to avoid this pitfall is to answer such questions with care and accuracy and to ensure that staff who deal with such queries are adequately trained to search across all systems so correct information is given though having due regard to the Data Protection Act and ensuring that personal and confidential information is not disclosed. Complainants of anti-social behaviour need not be identified.
The divulgence of correct information will enable tenants and potential tenants to make their own decisions as to the suitability of a property.
Will the impact of this case add burden to a Registered Provider?
In practice, Registered Providers are dealing with such queries every single day and are answering them perfectly adequately with care and caution. This case is a reminder that sometimes things can go wrong, so the case should serve as warning that accuracy and care and caution should be exercised when responding to legitimate queries and if a question can’t be answered – say so.