Illegal eviction and claims against the police

The case of Jansons v Latvia, where the police’s failure to intervene in an illegal eviction was found to be a breach of the person’s Human Rights.

Published March 2023

The police and illegal eviction

Many advisers will have spoken to clients who were told by the police that they cannot intervene in an illegal eviction as it is a ‘civil matter’. Some tenants even face situations where the police do not act neutrally and actively assist the landlord to evict the tenant. 

Illegal eviction is a criminal offence under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. While prosecutions for illegal eviction are normally carried out by the local authority, the police can and should take action if a landlord appears to be committing an offence.

In the case of Jansons v Latvia (Application no 1434/14), the European Court of Human Rights found the police’s failure to ensure a tenant was not evicted from his accommodation was a breach of his rights under Article 8 of the Convention. This opens up the possibility of occupiers taking similar action in the UK if the police have facilitated an illegal eviction or failed to intervene.

The facts

In August 2009, Mr Jansons concluded an agreement on the ‘use of premises’ in respect of a residential apartment in Riga, Latvia. The agreement was extended several times with the last contract stating it would expire on 1 July 2011. The building was sold to a new owner in April 2011.

Mr Jansons continued to reside in the property after the expiry of the agreement. He was offered a new four-month tenancy by the landlord but refused to sign because it did not offer him a right of extension. On 25 May 2012 the landlord sent Mr Jansons a letter requesting that he leave the premises by 25 June 2012. Mr Jansons remained in occupation after that date.

First attempt at eviction

On 8 November 2012 the representatives of the landlord, with the help of armed private security guards, forced themselves past the communal outside door into the hallway. Mr Jansons locked his door and phoned the state police.

When the police attended, they told Mr Jansons they believed it was a private matter and left. Mr Jansons then called the municipal police. They left after explaining to the landlord's representatives that an eviction could only be carried out with a court order.

Complaint to the police

On 9 November 2012 Mr Jansons left the apartment to log a formal complaint against the landlord at the police station. During his absence the representatives of the landlord changed the lock on the outside door. Mr Jansons was denied access to his belongings and the police refused to intervene despite persistent requests from Mr Jansons over the next few days and weeks.

Eviction by bailiffs

On 12 December 2012 a sworn bailiff attended the apartment to enforce a possession order the landlord had obtained against Mr Jansons’ former landlord. The bailiff forced open the door into the apartment. Mr Jansons informed the bailiff he had been living at the property. The bailiff informed Mr Jansons he was lawfully enforcing a court order and refused to let him in. Mr Jansons called the state and municipal police but they again refused to intervene.

Criminal and civil proceedings against the landlord

Criminal proceedings were brought against the landlord and the bailiffs on the basis of Mr Jansons previous complaints to the police. These proceedings were discontinued because the police concluded that Mr Jansons was not a tenant. The text of the agreement stated it concerned ‘the use of premises. Under Latvian law he was considered to be a ‘person using the premises rather than a tenant.

Mr Jansons brought a civil claim to have the tenancy recognised. These proceedings were also dismissed. Under Latvian law the wording of the agreements did not create a tenancy. This was not altered by Mr Jansons having resided in the apartment for a significant amount of time.

A concurrent claim for re-entry into the apartment also failed on the basis that the Court stated that he had to bring criminal proceedings - which Mr Jansons had already had done - and if guilt was established, bring a claim for damages. Mr Jansons appealed this decision but withdrew after the landlord was replaced in the proceedings by a new third-party owner.

Application to the European Court of Human Rights

Mr Jansons made an application against the Republic of Latvia to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The Court found that the property could be considered Mr Jansons’ home. This meant Article 8 was engaged, which provides for the right to respect of a person’s home.

Inaction by the police and bailiffs was a breach of Mr Janson’s rights under Article 8. There was also a breach of Article 8 in conjunction with Article 13, which requires that there be an effective remedy where a person’s rights are breached.

Comment

The judgment suggests that if the police refuse to intervene to stop an illegal eviction, this could be a breach of the tenant’s Article 8 rights. Even if the occupier has potential civil remedies available, this might not mean it is lawful for the police to allow the person’s Article 8 rights to be breached.

There are practical difficulties with legal remedies for re-entry. If a tenant is lucky enough to get an appointment with a solicitor and is eligible for legal aid, an injunction would then have to be issued if the landlord refuses to cooperate.

In some cases, it might not be practically possible for the tenant to return. They might not want to return because of their experiences. Legal action through the courts takes time. In principle, the police should be the best emergency option for a tenant facing illegal eviction.

Guidance for the police

The Court in Jansons noted the finding of Latvian Ombudsman:

‘The Court also refers in this connection to the findings of the Ombudsman that such passivity on the part of the police was a common practice at the given time and that only later were guidelines developed requiring the police to ensure public order in the face of property owners’ unlawful actions and to ensure tenants’ ability to access their homes.’ 

(paragraph 79 of the judgment)

Could this kind of central guidance be issued in England? There have been attempts by local authorities to brief police on their responsibilities. It is unclear how successful such attempts have been. Any guidance or awareness-raising from local or central government regarding the police’s responsibilities would have the potential to improve the situation.

Presently the status quo seems to be confusion by the police in terms of what the legal situation is when these emergency situations unfold.

Claims against the police

Jansons presents tenants with a new possible form of redress where the police either facilitate an unlawful eviction or refuse to intervene. In theory it might be possible to bring a civil claim in the High Court against the police based on breach of a tenant’s article 8 rights. The claim would be for damages, rather than to assist with re-entry.  

It might also be possible to bring an action in trespass in a situation where the police actively assist a landlord, as per Naughton v Whittle and Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police (2010)It wouldn’t seem possible to bring a concurrent claim for negligence, (see Cowan v Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset (2002) H.L.R 44)  

Human rights claims can be very difficult for claimants to prove. There would be no guarantee that even if breach was found that damages would be awarded. The client would have to be advised about the respective merits of claiming against the police as opposed to the landlord. Sometimes a claim against police might seem more attractive given the difficulties of enforcing judgments against private landlords.

Where the possibility of a claim against the police is raised, this might influence how that police force responds to illegal evictions in the future. It might also support the argument for better guidance from central or local government.

Legal aid funding for claims against the police

Part 33(6)(b) of Schedule 1 of LASPO confirms that services are in scope which are 'provided to an individual in relation to the unlawful eviction from the individual’s home of the individual or others.’

That scope seems relatively wide and could encompass claims against third parties for damages. It might also be possible to make an application for exceptional case funding if required and depending on the prospective client’s circumstances.

Template letter for the police

Occupiers can use this template note for the police or show a copy to the attending officers.


SHELTER'S ADVICE FOR ATTENDING POLICE OFFICERS 

This property is being occupied under a legal tenancy agreement that falls under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. 

The landlord must apply to court to evict this tenant lawfully. Only court appointed bailiffs can enforce this. 

Under section 1 Protection from Eviction Act 1977, any individual who deliberately and unlawfully deprives the occupier of their occupation of this property is committing a criminal offence.

The same applies to any individual who carries out acts calculated to cause the occupier to give up occupation without following the lawful process. 

WHAT POLICE OFFICERS CAN DO 

When attending an incident which may involve a Protection from Eviction Act 1977 offence, it is suggested that police officers: 

  • NOTE details which may be relevant to the above offences, including admissions, accusations, etc.  

  • WARN the landlord where you suspect they may be committing, or about to commit an offence, that this will be reported to the appropriate authority. 

  • Consider ARRESTING the landlord if they try to get into the premises against the wishes of the residential occupier (S.6(1) Criminal Law Act 1977).  

  • Consider appropriate action in relation to OTHER OFFENCES e.g. assault, breach of the peace, harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.  

  • Try and persuade both parties to PUT THINGS BACK as they were (e.g. try to get the landlord to allow the tenant back in, to change the locks back or to give the tenant a key).  

  • Do not get involved in civil disputes about rent, repairs – these are unlikely to have much bearing on the criminal law.  

  • REFER the tenant and landlord to the local authority’s private sector housing team.

  • INFORM the local authority’s private sector housing team of any relevant incident as soon as possible.


You can download and save a copy:

Word template: Illegal eviction information for the police (docx 16kb)

OpenDocument template: Illegal eviction information for the police (odt 10kb)

About the author

Robert Brown is a solicitor in the strategic litigation team at Shelter.