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Causes of action

This content applies to England

In order to take a case in the civil court, the complainant must have a cause of action deriving from either breach of contract or tort law.

There are two broad categories: breach of contract and tort (which means a civil wrong). Within each of these categories, there are different causes of action which are explained below.

Breach of contract

Where two or more people enter into a contract and one party does perform her/his part of the bargain (ie s/he not do what s/he has agreed to do), then the other party can take an action for breach of contract and claim damages. The aim of a damages award in contract law is to put the innocent party in the position s/he would have been in had the contract been performed. The following causes of action are available:

  • Breach of contract – tenancy agreements and licence agreements are contracts. Any breach of terms and conditions in a contract gives rise to the right to take action for damages in the civil courts. For example, a promise to supply electricity is broken if the supply is disconnected. Regulated, assured, and assured shorthold tenants still count as having a contract while they are in occupation even if the landlord has served a valid notice.
  • Breach of 'covenant for quiet enjoyment' – it is an implied term of all tenancies (there is also a similar term applied in licences)[1] that the occupier must be able to use the premises without interference. Acts of harassment or illegal eviction would clearly breach this covenant.

Tort

A tort is a civil wrong. An action in tort arises where someone unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortuous act. The general aim of an award of damages in tort is to put the injured party in the same position as s/he would have been in if the tort had not occurred. The following causes of action are available:

  • Breach of section 3 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 – a landlord must obtain a court order to evict all tenants and licensees (apart from excluded occupiers) under section 3 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
  • Trespass to land – trespass is entering someone's premises or land without permission or being invited but not leaving when requested. Any lawful occupier, other than an excluded occupier whose contract has expired, can use this cause of action.
  • Nuisance – this is any continual or recurring act that unreasonably interferes with the use or quiet enjoyment of premises. Any lawful occupier other than an excluded occupier with an expired contract can use this cause of action.
  • Trespass to goods and conversion – trespass to goods is unlawfully interfering with someone's property. Conversion is the civil equivalent of theft: taking an occupier's property without permission. Any owner of the goods can use this cause of action.
  • Breach of section 27 of the Housing Act 1988 – this makes unlawful eviction or harassment that leads to eviction a statutory tort. It can be used by any residential occupier (residential occupier is defined in the same way as in the Protection from Eviction Act 1977).
  • Assault – any act that puts the victim in immediate fear of being physically attacked. Any occupier can use this cause of action.

[1] Smith v Nottinghamshire CC, Times, 13 November 1981, CA (Civ Div).

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