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Adina-Leigh Collins demystifies the law of the involuntary bailee

It’s not easy being a landlord. A plethora of regulatory law has swept through the nation and, with the recent announcement that ‘no-fault’ evictions of residential tenants may soon be a thing of the past, one might conclude that onerous administration and problematic tenants outweigh the investment returns of being a landlord.

There is often another problem that arises and can affect both commercial and residential landlords alike and that is when, after a particularly difficult time, your troublesome tenant finally leaves – hurrah! But wait, what’s this? You attend the property only to find they have left behind what seems to be most of their possessions. What you may not realise is that this happens frequently. Maybe not to you, but it has happened to others and the law has developed to deal with just this situation.  You are now, what is known as in law, an ‘involuntary bailee’.

From the sunlit uplands of victory you’re now faced with yet more admin wondering how you’re going to get rid of their sofa, coffee table or, for one commercial landlord, an industrial sized double fridge! Can you just get rid of these things? Will the tenant come back to collect them another day?

The existence of personal possessions left behind can lead to a bigger problem for residential landlords as it can raise the question of whether your tenant has in fact left the property at all. We suggest extreme caution here and a strongly urge you to seek immediate legal assistance lest you wish to find yourself on the wrong side of an unlawful eviction claim and astronomical levels of compensation.

First and foremost, check your lease or tenancy agreement. This is the primary document dictating the terms of the relationship between you and your tenant and it may well deal with such a situation.

However often the lease is silent on this eventuality  in which case you must follow the procedure set out in the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 (‘the Act’).

In short, the Act codifies common sense.

  • You must give sufficient notice to your ex-tenant and tell them that they must come and collect the identified goods within a reasonable period;
  • As long as the proper notices are correctly served on your ex-tenant and they have been given a reasonable opportunity to come and collect the goods, if they subsequently fail to do so (and again providing you have given the correct notice), you will be entitled to sell any goods not collected.

Note, however, that whilst you may be entitled to sell the goods, you are not entitled to the money you receive from the sale.  This belongs to your ex-tenant, save for any costs of the sale that you have incurred.

An alternative to the ‘notice procedure’ described above is to make an application to the Court for an order to enable you to sell the goods and deduct any costs of the sale from the proceeds received. The Court will most likely direct you to pay the balance into the Court Funds Office for your ex-tenant to collect themselves which removes the onus on you, the landlord, to retain the funds. While this route can be more costly and may be more time consuming it may be your preferred route if the goods are valuable or if you prefer to have the comfort of being able to rely on a court order to reduce risk of criticism or subsequent challenge by your ex-tenant. In short if you have obtained a court order permitting the sale then you are authorised to sell the goods.

If you re-acquire your property only to then find that it is not quite empty it can undercut the relief you feel but, as the landlord, you are still under duties to act reasonably in dealing with your former tenant’s property.

It is imperative to seek legal advice and assistance to avoid falling foul of the law and facing potentially hefty claims against you.  If you are unsure as to your obligations and how best to proceed, the dispute resolution team at Grant Saw Solicitors are more than happy to assist. Please do not hesitate to contact us further for more information.

 

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.