Harassment by a landlord or letting agent

Conduct interfering with occupier’s rights or causing them alarm or distress constitutes harassment and occupiers are protected by law against it.

This content applies to England

Definitions

Harassment is normally used to describe conduct which interferes with another person’s rights or causes them alarm or distress. A landlord or their agent may harass a tenant for payment of monies owed or to persuade them to leave the property without following the correct legal procedures.

Depending on the circumstances, an offence of harassment by a landlord may originate in one of three Acts of Parliament. Many forms of harassment are covered by more than one Act. Each Act has its own definition of harassment:

  • The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes harassing another person unlawful if the perpetrator knew or should have known that the conduct involves harassment of that person.

  • The Protection from Eviction Act 1977 makes acts which interfere with the comfort of the occupiers, including withdrawal of services, an offence where they are carried out by a landlord or their agent.

  • The Administration of Justice Act 1970 contains an offence of harassment for any person who causes alarm, distress or humiliation to a person or their family in the recovery of a debt.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 defines harassment as behaviour that the perpetrator knows, or ought to know, amounts to harassment of the victim.[1] To constitute harassment the behaviour must occur on at least two occasions.[2]

Offences under the Act are not limited to conduct by a landlord or their agent. Harassment could be carried out by occupiers of neighbouring properties or any other person visiting the locality.

Actions that might constitute harassment within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1977 include:

  • harassment because of gender, race, disability or sexuality

  • violence, threats or intimidation

  • abusive or insulting words or behaviour.

The High Court granted summary judgment in one case to claimants who produced a significant body of evidence of fly tipping, interference with water supply, vandalism and flooding caused by the defendant freeholder. The defence consisted of bare denials, there was no proper response to the allegations. Summary judgment is a final order granted without a full trial.[3]

The Protection from Eviction Act 1977

Harassment and illegal eviction are separate offences under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. For harassment which has an intent to cause the occupier to leave all or part of the property, see What is illegal eviction?

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.

In either case, the offence is committed if the offender knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the conduct is likely to cause the residential occupier to:

  • give up part of the premises, or

  • refrain from exercising any right in respect of all or part of the premises, or

  • refrain from pursuing any remedy in respect of all or part of the premises

It is necessary to show that the landlord or agent is a participant in any actions, or procured the actions complained of, as they cannot be held vicariously liable for the actions of others.[4]

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

  • pressuring occupiers to leave where the legal process for possession has not been followed

  • removing or restricting essential services such as hot water or heating

  • 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 their permission

  • stopping the occupier from having guests

  • tampering with mail

  • persistently offering the occupier money to leave

  • intentionally moving in other tenants who cause nuisance

  • harassment because of gender, race, disability or sexuality

The acts could be committed against the occupier or any member of their household.

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'.[5] A single act that affects an occupier over a period of time, for example by 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 their 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 under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, a mistake of fact may be a defence to the charge.[6] A mistake of fact could occur where the person committing the act of harassment honestly and reasonably believed the occupier was not a residential occupier.

For the second offence only, if the landlord or agent can show that they had reasonable grounds for carrying out the acts or withdrawing the services in question, they have a defence to the charge.[7] 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.[8]

The perpetrator must have reasonable cause to believe that the conduct is likely to cause an occupier to leave the property or refrain from exercising their rights in respect of the premises in order for it to be an offence.

The Administration of Justice Act 1970

Harassment for the payment of money under a contract is an offence under s.40 Administration of Justice Act 1970.

Demands for payment may constitute harassment if they are:

  • unreasonable in manner or frequency

  • accompanied by threats, or threats of publicity

This offence does not apply to anything done which is reasonable and otherwise permitted in law.

An offence may be committed if a landlord or agent:

  • falsely represents that criminal proceedings can be taken for non-payment of money owed

  • falsely claims to be authorised in an official capacity to claim or enforce payment

  • produces documents which falsely claim to have an official character

Caravan sites

Park home residents who have a contract with the owner of a protected site are not covered by the Protection from Eviction Act but may be protected under the Caravan Sites Act 1968.

This applies to all occupiers of park homes who:

  • live on a protected site, and

  • have a residential contract with the park owner[9]

Harassment is defined in the Act, as amended by the Housing Act 2004, as action that interferes or is likely to interfere with the peace and comfort of the occupier, or the persistent withdrawal of services or facilities reasonably required for the occupation of the caravan on the site. These acts must be carried out with in the knowledge that they are likely to cause the occupier to abandon the caravan, remove it from the site, or to refrain from exercising any right in relation to the caravan.[10]

Last updated: 4 March 2021

Footnotes

  • [1]

    s.1(1) Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

  • [2]

    s.7(3) Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

  • [3]

    Manson-Smith v Arthurworry [2020] 12 WLUK 167 (extempore)

  • [4]

    R v Q [2011] EWCA Crim 1584.

  • [5]

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

  • [6]

    R v Phekoo [1981] WLR 117, CA.

  • [7]

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

  • [8]

    s.27(7) Housing Act 1988.

  • [9]

    s.1 Caravan Sites Act 1968.

  • [10]

    s.3(1)(c) Caravan Sites Act 1968, as amended by s.210 Housing Act 2004.