When do you need to bring a lawyer in to fight your corner?

Tenants generally don’t come to a direct access barrister for advice until the day before they are due to see their landlord in court. Many people think that as their tenancy agreement is written in English, and as they are highly educated English speakers, they should be able to handle their own cases.

The truth is many tenants are able to resolve difficult situations with estate agents and landlords themselves.

The issue for tenants is knowing when they need professional help – and how to get it.

If you are eligible for legal aid, the solution may be to find a Housing solicitor.

If you earn too much to be eligible for legal aid, but not enough to throw money you don’t have at the problem, there are a number of good resources, such as the Shelter website, to turn to.

But online resources aren’t always the answer. I could watch videos and read instruction manuals on how to change the oil in my car – but I’ve never once thought of that as a cost-effective solution. Some people are self-taught and acquit themselves well in court. Others simply do not have the time or inclination to develop the level of expertise needed to effectively protect their rights.

If you’re dealing with the following issues and finding your “oil change” is becoming more like legal surgery, you may find getting fixed-fee advice from a fully qualified barrister or solicitor is the most cost-effective way forward.

Discrimination

As I wrote in Renters, Private Landlords & Housing Discrimination, there are several options open to tenants who’ve been at the sharp end of a letting agent’s or landlord’s discrimination. The Equality Act applies and redress in the County Court can be highly effective. Knowing when to go down that road and the procedural steps to take will be something you may wish to take advice on from an experienced solicitor or barrister.

Disrepair, Gas Safety & Hazardous Premises

Damp, leaks, mould, dangerous electrics, neglected gas boilers etc. etc. are part and parcel of many tenants’ experience. Your particular issue may be addressed by your tenancy agreement and/or various statutes. Whether a tenant is better served by taking County or Magistrates’ Court action will turn on the specific facts of the case and the outcome they hope to achieve.

As I wrote in, Your Case Turns on Evidence, complaining to your landlord or agent in writing generally is the first step in resolving problems. Keep copies of all correspondence between you, your landlord and the letting agent as this will be invaluable should you need to take the matter to court.

The Health and Safety Executive has a faq on Gas Safety and your local council’s Environment Department may investigate tenant complaints about statutory nuisance or a health hazard. I say, “may” as getting council officers out to tenants’ premises to inspect can be an uphill battle.

As Retaliatory Eviction is not illegal and a real possibility, tenants in this situation may find advice from a specialist Housing/Landlord & Tenant lawyer can cut through any confusion and resolve the matter with a collaborative approach – without the necessity of court proceedings.

Unlawful Eviction

There is a small but disturbing minority of landlords who take “self-help” measures to get tenants out. Rather than follow the correct procedure, they take matters into their own hands by changing locks, cutting off gas and electric supplies and threatening violence.

If you have a fixed-term or periodic assured shorthold tenancy and your landlord wants you out and you don’t agree to leave, he must get a possession order from the court – as well as a warrant.

Depending on the specific circumstances of your case, a remedy may be found in Breach of Contract and/or Tort law in the County Court – as well as via Criminal proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court.

Your council’s Tenancy Relations Officer should be a first port of call. Unfortunately, not all TROs will take a case to the Magistrates’ Court and you may need a lawyer’s assistance to seek judicial redress. Even if a TRO proceeds with Magistrates’ Court action, that would not preclude an illegally evicted tenant pursuing a Civil injunction requiring the landlord to let them back into their home and/or a claim for Civil damages.

As always, call the police if anybody is violent or threatens violence.

Conclusion

Many problems between landlords, tenants and letting agents can be resolved without court battles. Knowing your rights is the number one step tenants can take to redress the power imbalance with their landlords. The second step is communicating that knowledge to letting agents and landlords in an effective way. (See, Taking out the heat: key points to avoid in legal letter writing to avoid common pitfalls).

Lawyers are not just for court – they can give you a steer as to the best action to take in your circumstances. Early legal advice, particularly in possession proceedings, illegal eviction, discrimination and disrepair matters can resolve repairing issues, save tenancies and ensure justice – without having to go to court.

UPDATE

I’ve just published, Tenants’ Rights: Get Advice (2) and set out further reading for those who are serious about representing themselves and who want to dig deeper into their rights.

UPDATE 2

The third in the “Tenants’ Rights: Get Advice” series of blog-posts is, Tenants’ Rights: Get Advice & Stop Problems Before They Start where I’ve posted a model tenancy agreement, a tenancy checklist and as an added bonus, probably the most memorable video on contract negotiation on the web.

UPDATE 3

See also Tenants’ Rights: Get Advice (Why should I pay you when I can get it for free?)