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What is harassment?

This content applies to England

Harassment as defined by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

For information on other types of harassment (which could also be perpetrated by a landlord) see the section on Harassment and antisocial behaviour.

Definition

Harassment is defined in the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 as:

  • acts likely to interfere with the peace and comfort of those living in the property, or
  • persistent withdrawal of services that are reasonably required for the occupation of the premises.

Two separate offences

The Protection from Eviction Act 1977 creates two separate offences of harassment:

  • the first offence can be committed by any person if it can be shown that s/he had an intent to cause an occupier to leave all or part of the property or refrain from exercising any right or remedy in respect of the premises[1]
  • the second can only be committed by a landlord or her/his agent. This offence is committed if it can be shown that the landlord or her/his agent knew or had reasonable cause to believe that their action(s) was likely to have the effect above (ie give up occupation or refrain from exercising rights or remedies).[2] When the action(s)complained of is carried out by the agent and the landlord is not involved it is the agent who is guilty of the offence. It is always necessary to show that the landlord (or agent) is a participant in any action(s), or procured the action(s) complained of, as s/he cannot be held vicariously liable for the actions of others.[3]

For both offences it is necessary to prove both the act and either the intention (first offence) or the reasonable cause to believe (second offence).

It is not sufficient to merely show that the act was committed. The key elements of the definition of harassment are explained in a later section.

Actions that can constitute harassment

Acts likely to interfere with the peace and comfort of those living at the property

This may include acts such as:

  • forcing occupiers to sign agreements that take away their legal rights
  • removing or restricting essential services such as hot water or heating, or failing to pay bills so that these services are cut off
  • constant visits to the property, particularly if this occurs late at night or without warning
  • entering the accommodation when the occupier is not there, or without her/his permission
  • stopping the occupier from having guests
  • persistently offering the occupier money to leave
  • intentionally moving in other tenants who cause nuisance, or
  • harassment because of gender, race, disability or sexuality.

The acts could be committed against the occupier or any member of her/his household. Although the legislation refers to 'acts', one act could be sufficient.

Persistently withdrawing or withholding services that the occupier reasonably requires for the occupation of the premises

This may include the disconnection of services such as electricity, hot water, heating, or any other essential services. For an act or acts to be considered to be persistent, there must be some element of 'deliberate continuity'.[4] However, a single act that affects an occupier over a period of time (eg cutting off supplies of electricity for an extended period) should be regarded as persistent withdrawing of services.

Forcing the occupier to leave all or part of the property

This may include forcing the occupier to give up occupying the common parts, one room or the whole of the premises. It does not include giving up the accommodation temporarily while repair works are completed.

Forcing the occupier to refrain from exercising the legal rights and remedies associated with their tenancy

This could include forcing the occupier to sign an agreement that reduces her/his rights, or to give up the accommodation temporarily during repairs without the provision of any alternative accommodation. The occupier might be prevented from exercising rights such as reporting disrepair to an environmental health officer or going to a rent officer to get a fair rent registered.

Defence to harassment

For either offence of harassment, a mistake of fact (for example where the person committing the act of harassment honestly and reasonably believed the occupier was not a residential occupier) may be a defence to the charge.[5]

For the second offence only, if the landlord or agent can show that s/he had reasonable grounds for carrying out the acts or withdrawing/withholding the services in question, s/he has a defence to the charge.[6] This might include situations where the water authority is carrying out emergency works and requires the supply to be cut off temporarily. Provocation by an occupier would not be considered a reasonable ground, but may result in the reduction of any damages awarded.[7]

[1] s.1(3) Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

[2] s.1(3A) Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

[3] R v Q [2011] EWCA Crim 1584.

[4] R v Abrol [1972] Crim LR 318, CA.

[5] R v Phekoo [1981] WLR 117, CA.

[6] s.1(3B) Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

[7] s.27(7) Housing Act 1988.

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