Opinion column asks why is it so often ignored that unlawful eviction or harassment of tenants is a serious criminal offence

"I returned home to find the locks had been changed. I phoned the landlord. He told me I was being evicted for rent arrears, which was not true. We only had the clothes we were standing in. All our furniture, clothing, toys, food, electrical equipment and my medication was in the house. Two weeks later, the landlord threw out all my belongings on the street. Things were lying in the gutter and were ruined. I phoned the police. The police watched me picking up my stuff and said 'Maybe next time you will pay your rent'."

The above quote was given by one of our clients. As solicitors in two busy Glasgow law centres, we often come across people with similar stories.

This is despite the fact that unlawful eviction has been a crime in Scotland since the Protection from Eviction Act 1964, the law now being contained in the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984.

Worryingly, however, although we tell our clients that unlawful eviction is a criminal offence, when they try to report an unlawful eviction or harassment to the police, they are offered little or no assistance. Often they are told it is "a civil matter" and they should speak to a solicitor.

To our frustration, no landlords or agent who has unlawfully evicted clients of ours has ever been charged with Rent Act offences. We decided to investigate whether our experiences were typical. We made freedom of information requests to all the police forces in Scotland as well as the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. We also discussed matters with local police officers. The results confirmed our concerns that the crime of unlawful eviction is virtually ignored in Scotland.

Since 2003, 14 people have been convicted of offences under s 22 of the Act (unlawful eviction or harassment of a residential occupier). An average of two convictions per year appears very low, considering that in March this year, 11 clients instructed us in one day alone because they had been harassed by their landlord. In our Govanhill office, we currently represent more than 20 clients who have been the victims of unlawful eviction or harassment.

It is clear from the information we obtained that one reason there are so few convictions is that there are very few prosecutions. There were only 210 reports made to the procurator fiscal and 77 prosecutions for the 2003-2010 period. We had hoped to contrast this with the number of incidents reported to the police, but we were unable to obtain accurate information as the response to one FOI request told us that the police incident recording system STORM has no facility for recording Rent Act offences as such.

On discussing the matter with police officers, many, including a chief inspector, admitted that they had never heard of the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984 and the offences therein. One force told us that offences under the Act are often recorded under another crime, e.g. assault, breach of the peace.

While unlawful eviction or harassment which involves violence or aggression may be dealt with in such terms, in situations where the eviction has taken place without violence, e.g. the locks being changed while the tenant was out, the police seem reluctant to become involved.

The fact that the relationship between a tenant and landlord is contractual is something which appears to prevent both landlords and police from recognising that eviction without due process of law is a serious criminal offence. Often landlords tell us that the tenant had not been paying rent, was in breach of contract and therefore had no legal right to remain in the property. On one recent occasion, a police officer phoned our office from the client's doorstep, asking us to confirm whether the notice to quit was valid or not. That is irrelevant, as s 23 does not allow eviction without due process and it was quite obvious that no court order had been granted.

We now aim to raise awareness of the crime of unlawful eviction and the misery that it can cause, and ensure that the full force of the law is used to protect tenants and occupiers from criminal acts. With this aim in mind, we have started to take action such as creating posters with a brief explanation of the law to display in police stations in the south west of Glasgow. We have offered to develop and deliver training for police.

Encouragingly, we have developed good links with community police officers in Govanhill, who are keen to work in partnership with us to bring rogue landlords and agents to justice. Although this is a step in the right direction, it does not address the issue nationwide. We are interested to hear the views of other members of the legal profession and can be contacted at admin@govanhilllc.com .

 

Lorraine Barrie and Lindsay Paterson are solicitors with Govan Law Centre and Govanhill Law Centre

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