Prisoner Unlawfully Evicted from Housing Association Flat Wins Damages

The concept of unlawful eviction may bring to mind a picture of a malign landlord changing the locks and throwing a vulnerable tenant onto the street. However, a case in which a serving prisoner's protected tenancy was wrongfully terminated during his absence behind bars showed that it more commonly arises from a landlord's muddled understanding of the law.

The man had for some years held an assured tenancy of a housing association flat. After he was convicted of serious drug offences, he received a 22-year jail term. His wife remained living in the flat with their young child. Their marriage did not survive his incarceration and, following their divorce, the wife and child moved to another property. The flat was subsequently re-let.

In upholding the man's unlawful eviction claim, the High Court found that nothing he said, wrote or did following his imprisonment amounted to an unequivocal surrender of his tenancy, which was protected under the Housing Act 1988. Although he was keen to add his wife to his tenancy so that she and their child could retain the roof over their heads, he never offered to give up his own right to possession of the flat. His landlord had no entitlement to treat his tenancy as at an end.

The Court noted that it is rare for social landlords unlawfully to evict their tenants. When they do so, it is usually a result of honest misjudgment and scarcely ever arises from a deliberate intention to act unlawfully. Standing back, the evidence painted a picture of hopeless muddle and seeming administrative and managerial incompetence on the landlord's part. There was a lack of clarity as to what should be done, what was being done and why, in response to the man's imprisonment.

In awarding him £145,800 in damages and interest, the Court noted that he had been punished for his crimes to the full extent of the law. His tenancy enjoyed security of tenure and it did not follow from the fact of his offending that his landlord was in any way justified in unlawfully depriving him of his home.