There is a licensing scheme in England for Multiple Occupancy Homes (HMO) which comes under the Housing Act 2004. It requires owners of properties occupied by a number of tenants in two or more households, those sharing facilities, to apply to the local authority and to hold a license to operate an HMO.
Possession of such an HMO license obliges landlords to comply with the regulations relating to the condition of the property under section 234 of the Housing Act 2004. The regulations are mandated by the ‘Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006′ known as’ HMO regulations” and these cover fire, gas and electric safety, decoration and cleanliness of the property, waste disposal, etc.
HMO regulations require the responsible person, individually or collectively as a landlord, landlord, manager or agent, to be more accountable for the condition of the property than would be the case with single family rentals.
Instead of going through the lengthy and complex process of prosecuting a landlord for non-compliance through county courts, a local housing authority now has the power to impose a financial penalty on a landlord under section 249A of the Housing Act 2004, up to a maximum of £30,000 for each offence.
Dorval v Contracting District Council
In Dorval v Tendering district Council, Ms Dorval and her husband were landlords and registered owners of an HMO for which Ms Dorval applied for and was granted HMO licenses for two adjacent properties and was permitted until respectively to eight and six occupants.
In 2018 managing agents were appointed to manage both properties, but after local housing authority officials visited on several occasions, Ms Dorval was sent work schedules which needed to be done. There have also been visits by the police following complaints of anti-social behavior by tenants. In August 2019 both HMO houses were closed following service by the Council of Emergency Prohibition Orders under section 43 of the Housing Act 2004.
The Council then imposed fines on Mrs Dorval in the amount of £90,000 on charges of committing five separate offenses against each property. Ms. Dorval then appealed the final penalty notices to the First-tear Property Tribunal (FTT).
The appeal was heard in November 2021 and again in January 2022, but following a number of requests for postponement by Ms Dorval, the General Court decided to proceed with the hearing as part of the procedure written defense. This meant that a rehearing review was not possible and only a review of the ITF decision was possible.
Ms Dorval was represented by solicitors earlier in the proceedings but was not represented thereafter.
The fines had been imposed on the grounds that Ms Dorval had failed to comply with the regulations and had committed offenses at each property under the following paragraphs of the HMO regulations:
– Regulation 4(2), requiring the director of the HMO to ensure that fire-fighting equipment and alarms are in good working order;
– Article 6, paragraphs 1 and 3, relating to the inspection of gas appliances and electrical installations;
– Regulation 7 which imposes a number of requirements regarding the cleanliness and decoration of the property, and the condition of handrails, banisters, stair coverings, ventilation and any garden and boundary fencing;
– Regulation 8 which requires that the accommodation and any furniture supplied to it be and be kept clean and safe; And
– Regulation 9 which requires adequate provisions for waste disposal.
Witness statements were made during the proceedings by four local authority officials and two police officers, but the FTT in its decision acknowledged that witnesses were called and questioned, but said nothing about the content of their statements.
A bundle of 158 photographs indicated that the two properties were “in miserable condition”, but there were no labels to indicate which photographs related to which offences.
Ms Dorval also made a witness statement and gave evidence to TLT, who were briefly told that her argument was that the condition of the property was the responsibility of the managing agents and that the considerable damage had been caused by the tenants .
There was testimony from a managing agent director in the package, but there is no reference to this in the FTT decision. There was an explanation from the FTT that there was a conflict between the officers and Ms Dorval over who was responsible for arranging the repairs. It found that Ms Dorval was primarily guilty under the HMO regulations. His reasonable apology defense was dismissed.
The decision was largely confirmed
The FTT said it was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms Dorval had committed all but one or two offences, and set out its conclusions on each case of infringement.
Ms Dorval stated in the court hearings that some work had been done to the properties and that some of the damage had been caused by the tenants, saying she had been a victim of the occupiers, a view acknowledged by the court panel in its ruling. Dorval had no previous convictions.
That court reduced the fines slightly, and following a subsequent appeal on the level of the fine, another panel of the court reduced the fines again to £23,000. The Council had originally set fines of £90,000, but the court panel ruled that matters were deteriorating rapidly in a short period of time and therefore there was less culpability.
Judge Ruth Wayte concluded that the penalties “will to a large extent remove any financial advantage to the applicant as manager during the council’s period of involvement with the properties.”
Paul Honeywood, TDC cabinet member for housing, said the level of fines showed landlords that they needed to maintain their properties.
“We are not afraid to take action against dishonest landlords who think it is acceptable for our residents to live in sub-standard housing, whether that is by issuing our own fines or following various appeals through the courts.
“The vast majority of Tendring landowners maintain their properties properly and want the same as we do; decent quality homes for the tenants and, in turn, rental income for them. We will always work with and support owners who share this view.
“Unfortunately this case highlights the problems that can occur, rarely at this level, and we will not hesitate to take strong action to crack down on landlords who break the rules.”
The case has important implications as it confirms that courts must take into account a council’s policy when imposing civil penalties for these offences.