In 2018, Niamh Harrington, a student at Northumbria University, would start her search for a rented property in Newcastle with seven of her friends. By January, the group would discover a house that fit their needs and proceed to inform the estate agents that they would be taking the property.
However, before the group could finalise their agreement and sign any of the documents necessary to begin the tenancy, they would find themselves two people short after one of their friends dropped out of university, while another had to move back home due to mental health concerns.
The remaining six students would subsequently return to the estate agents to inform them that they could no longer commit to renting the property in question and would resume their search for rented accommodation.
This story would usually end right here. However, unfortunately for Niamh and her fellow flatmates, the dream of them living together would turn into a nightmare… One that would continue for nearly two years.
In February, the students would receive a letter from a solicitor on behalf of the landlord of the property they had initially visited. It would state that they were in breach of their tenancy agreement (an agreement which they had never signed) and would consequently have to pay £8,000 for this ‘violation’. In addition, the students would be required to pay a full year’s rent regardless of whether they could live within the property; this would amount to approximately £38,400 (£400 per/person, per/month).
The law firm behind this letter would not only be where the landlord practiced as a barrister but was in fact owned and operated by him too.
Frightened by the possibility of being taken to court, the group of students would ultimately give into the demands of the landlord and pay the £8,000 fine in June of 2018.
Unable to pay for two separate properties, Niamh and her flatmates would have to find two additional tenants to move into the property owned by the barrister, which they settled into by August of 2018.
I feel that it is important at this juncture to highlight that the demands set out by this landlord are both highly unethical, illegal, and quite frankly cannot be described as anything other than extortion.
While verbal contracts are indeed legally binding (although difficult to enforce) they do not apply for certain types of agreements. Those that would require detailed and specific terms, for example a tenancy agreement, must be prepared in writing in order to be valid. As Niamh and her flatmates did not sign any form of documentation, they would not be committed to paying for the accommodation or receive any form of penalty for not following through with their initial verbal agreement.
Even if these students had signed a fixed term tenancy agreement without a break clause, they would not be expected to pay over £46,400 for breaking/ending the contract. As Citizens Advice outlines the only penalty that tenants should receive is that they would have to pay rent until the end of the tenancy. Therefore, the maximum amount Niamh and her flatmates would have had to pay would have been £38,400.
While the students would notice several issues within their accommodation from the beginning of their tenancy (ranging from continuously dripping tapes to beds/doors that didn’t meet fire safety standards), by December 2018 even greater problems began to arise.
Two of their washing machines would simultaneously break, while their boiler, unsuited to the heating requirements of the property, would continue to be an ongoing problem throughout their stay. Both of these appliances would either be replaced or fixed by the landlord.
However, in April 2019, the tenants would receive another letter from the landlord’s solicitors which would inform them that they had to pay a £4,000 for expenses related to fixing/replacing these items.
Citizens Advice states that a landlord is responsible for keeping in repair boilers and that these ‘responsibilities can’t be removed by anything your tenancy agreement says.’ Furthermore, a landlord is not allowed to pass on the cost of any repair work to tenants that isn’t their responsibility.
While the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 excludes ‘fixtures, fittings and appliances for making use of the supply of water, gas or electricity’ from the landlords repairing obligations, the landlord in question would not be able to charge Niamh and her flatmates for replacing their washing machines without prior notice.
The students would reach out to a retired solicitor, a family friend of one of the occupants, to ask for his advice. They would subsequently decide to not pay the £4,000 and email the landlord to notify him of their decision.
Two weeks later they would receive a court order from a small claims court in Newcastle. However, Niamh and her flatmates would request that their case be deferred to Middlesbrough county court to avoid a biased hearing due to the landlord’s occupation as a barrister within the local area.
This request would be granted and they would be given the date for their hearing, which would take place in January 2020.
A week before their day in court, they would proceed to hand in all of their evidence and statements. However, just two days later the claimant would come back to them with a deal, offering 50% off his initial claim.
While Niamh and her flatmates felt that there was no way they could win their case against such a well-connected and powerful individual, they would decline the offer. After months of gathering evidence, booking days off work and hotels, and most crucially feeling that they did not deserve to pay a penny, the group of students believed that enough was enough and that their case should be heard in court in order to receive justice.
Now living in accommodations up and down the country, after moving out their tenancy which ended in December 2019, the students would drive up to Middlesbrough the night before so that they could promptly appear in court at 10:30AM.
On the morning of the case, they would all wait outside the court… However, one key individual was missing – The landlord.
They would be informed that the landlord had emailed the court at 9:15AM, in which he would state that he would not be attending the hearing. Thankfully, the presiding judge would allow for the students to be seen and would read over all of the evidence that they had provided.
The judge would decide upon the following:
- That the claim would be struck out – meaning that the students wouldn’t be liable for the £4,000 in charges.
- That the landlord would have to relinquish their deposits – totalling to £3,200.
- That the landlord would have to pay for all the defendants’ legal costs.
While this was certainly a great victory for these students, others would not be so lucky. Today, the landlord has still not learnt his lesson and has entered a second court hearing with the new tenants of this property after fining them for faulty appliances.
This case should act as a warning for all students looking to rent accommodation. Too often have young individuals, due to a lack of experience and knowledge, shied away from seeking legal council in fear of causing conflict and receiving repercussions.
Students should make sure to read over their contracts, begin to understand the law, and most importantly listen to their gut when they feel that something just isn’t right. While it is indeed understandable that many would wish to avoid going to court and the potential ramifications that this can bring, as we have witnessed from this example, the alternative to this would ultimately not prevent Niamh and her flatmates from experiencing the levels of suffering that we have documented here.
Unfortunately, the majority of young people within the UK have not been provided with the skills necessary to navigate through these difficult situations. We should therefore all attempt to educate ourselves before voyaging into the unknown territory of rented accommodation.
Regrettably, selfish, nasty, and generally foul landlords will continue to exist – there is nothing that we can do to change this. However, by arming ourselves with the information required to tackle these tricky and painful situations, we may start to see some change.
While the landlord has not learnt his lesson on this occasion, both he and others will start to change their tune once they suffer the consequence of their actions. If people remain silent, placid, and frightened, cases such as these will inevitably be doomed to repeat themselves once more. It is therefore of extreme importance that we all hold our landlords to account – not just for ourselves but for the tenants that will come after we have left.
If you have experienced a difficult situation in regard to rented accommodation, then please contact us at: email@example.com. We are keen to hear your story and let others learn about your experience to make students aware of the issues that many are facing.
For legal advice and council regarding accommodation head to Citizens Advice for more information.
If you would like to read more stories on student housing issues, then why not read our article on The Student Housing Company.
Illustrated by Hermione Ross