‘Rogue landlords,’ as they are known, are frequently in the news for allegedly overcharging tenants, refusing to return a deposit, or evicting tenants illegally.

What is meant by ‘unlawful eviction’?

To find out more, we must observe what is set forth in the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

Section 1(2) states when someone is guilty of this offence:

“If any person unlawfully deprives the residential occupier of any premises of his occupation of the premises or any part thereof, or attempts to do so, he is guilty of an offence unless he proves that he believed, and had reasonable cause to believe, that the residential occupier had ceased to reside in the premises.”

Elements of the offence and key players

The terms ‘eviction’ and ‘deprivation’ have been interpreted in a relatively intuitive manner by the courts, a key factor being the lack of access.

In Yuthiwattana (1984) 80 Cr App R 55 the court looked at differing levels of access deprivation and stated:

‘In our view “permanency” goes too far. For instance, if the owner of the premises unlawfully tells the occupier that he must leave the premises for some period, it may be of months or weeks, and then excludes him from the premises, or does anything else with the result that the occupier effectively has to leave the premises and find other accommodation, then it would in our view be open to a jury to convict the owner under subsection (2) on the ground that he had unlawfully deprived the occupier of his occupation. On the other hand, cases which are more properly described as “locking out” or not admitting the occupier on one or even more isolated occasions, so that in effect he continues to be allowed to occupy the premises but is then unable to enter, seem to us to fall appropriately under subsection (3)(a) or (b) , which deal with acts of harassment.’

Someone does not necessarily have to be a tenant to be a residential occupier; it is possible to gain protection as a contractual licensee: Thurrock Urban District Council v Shina (1972) 70 LGR 184.

But I had a good reason to deprive someone of their access, how do I show this?

If you are accused of unlawfully depriving someone of access to their property in this manner, you must prove that you “believed, and had reasonable cause to believe, that the residential occupier had ceased to reside in the premises.”

This would only provide a landlord with a reasonable defence if the tenant had removed all tangible traces of occupancy from the property and the landlord had reasonable grounds to assume he would not return. The reason for this is that “possession” is synonymous with “occupation”, meaning something more than physical presence.

Before possession can be obtained of residential premises, in all cases other than where there has been voluntary vacation, there must be a court order. This will also be the case for tenants protected by the Rent Acts or Housing Act 1988, as well as for restricted contracts where a licence only is granted.

What are the penalties for this offence?

The offence is punishable by up to two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and it can be prosecuted in both magistrates’ and crown courts.