BRIXTON LEGAL: Act provides new legal options for renters

Pam Douglas is a local solicitor. Each month, her column takes a common legal issue and explains it for readers

I was struggling to come up with an idea for this month’s column. Then, recently, as I sat freezing in my home, the result of my landlord’s ongoing neglect, it occurred to me that part of the misery for many people in similar situations is the overwhelming sense of powerlessness and déjà vu.

Currently, if you rent privately, you can complain to your landlord about the condition of your home.

But if the landlord ignores you, the local council will be the body that has the authority to take any action, but often does not have the resources to do so.

If you are a council tenant, you must complain to the council and, if your council landlord does not take appropriate action … well, I think you can see the problem.

In both cases, tenants must rely on the local authority, which can be very time-consuming and stressful and potentially dangerous if the issue poses a hazard to health.

But there is now hope for the afflicted, even if some of us will have to wait. On 20 March 2019, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act comes into force.

Under the Act, renters experiencing problems relating to the condition of their homes will be able to instigate legal action directly against their landlords.

It will apply to all new private tenancies of less than seven years, granted after the commencement date (i.e. after 20 March 2019).

It will also apply to all fixed-term tenancies granted before the commencement date but that become periodic tenancies after the commencement date.

This would include an assured shorthold tenancy (AST) which rolls over after six months, as well as introductory tenancies which become secure tenancies.

It will also apply to all other common forms of tenancy which exist on 20 March 2019 (including council secure tenancies) from 12 months after the commencement date.

So if you are a private or council tenant who is renting on 20 March 2019, you will be able to take direct legal action from 20 March 2020.

What is covered?

The Act specifies the inclusion of: state of repair, stability, damp, lighting, ventilation, internal arrangement, drainage and toilet facilities, and food preparation and cooking facilities.

Whether or not any issue arising renders the property “unfit” will depend partly on it meeting the definition of “hazard” under s10 Housing Act 2004.

But, crucially, the Act will allow for a broader interpretation to take into account any risk of harm to inhabitants.

Many people stop short of taking legal action because of worries about the cost. But legal aid will be available in cases of disrepair that qualify.

Many law firms will also offer “conditional fee arrangements” (sometimes known as “no-win-no-fee”) to assist those who fall outside of the scope of legal aid.

This is a complicated area of law, so I do strongly recommend that you ensure that you keep records as evidence of your issue, and that you speak to an experienced lawyer before taking action.