Housing and regeneration law firm, Crofton Solicitors – who experienced analmost 200% increase in disrepair cases between 2016 and 2017 – found that most claims only actually succeeded in court because of a lack of evidence from the housing provider. Understandably this makes disrepair cases very hard to defend in court. While ‘claim farming’ is going to continue, at least until restrictions are placed on housing disrepair claims similar to those placed on PPI claims, there is a range of measures social housing providers can take to mitigate the risk of disrepair claims.
- Through Property entry
Poor record-keeping of attempted property entry is the most common failure for landlords. Common statements such as ‘the resident wasn’t in’ or ‘the resident didn’t let us in’ and ‘we carried out the repair’ are unlikely to stand in court. Having clear, standardised data on entrances, work carried out and inaccessibility reasons give solicitors something to refute the claims with. This at least allows them to demonstrate to the court that the issue with the property would have been fixed had you been given appropriate access.
Government guidelines suggest that a landlord give at least 24 hours written notice to the tenant of a visit and be within reasonable hours (i.e. not late at night or too early in the morning). If your organisation isn’t in the habit of ensuring you confirm with residents what time they want to have the visit, not only are your rates of inaccessibility going to go up, you are far more likely to get a claim of disrepair because crucial work wasn’t carried out.
- Don’t over-commit
The Landlord and Tenant Act obliges landlords to keep their homes “in repair”, but tenancy agreements often bind housing associations beyond this statutory remit. For example, keeping a home in “good repair” can be very subjective and binds landlords to standards that might not be tenable, and clarity of defence is immediately lost. This is a tricky one for social housing providers as their social mission encourages them to push for the best possible conditions for their residents. Unfortunately – this isn’t often reflected in the black-and-white world of the law. Ambiguity in tenancy agreements will very often benefit the resident when it comes to cases of disrepair so being clear and attainable is better than short and vague.
A prime example of this would be the “good repair” clause above. The answer to the question “what is good repair” would be down to a judge in a courtroom, subsequently leaving parties at risk. A successful solicitor engaging in a disrepair case could likely make any issue with the property in breach of said clause. Whilst changing existing tenancy agreements isn’t a quick fix, since it involves tenant consultation, it is the only definitive way of resolving this issue.
- Fit-for-purpose policies
Many social landlords have inadequate policies and procedures for avoiding successful disrepair claims – access procedures being a prime example. Landlord liability doesn’t stop because your tenant wasn’t there to let you in, but many social housing providers leave the onus on the resident to rearrange a maintenance visit following one failed access attempt. They often wrongly assume that leaving a calling card will prompt a resident to rearrange. This is insufficient, as it does not relieve the landlord of their legal duty to repair. Refusing access is a tenancy breach and should be legally enforced.
With the cost associated with disrepair, policies for ensuring adequate ventilation, insulation and heating system installations should be paramount. Making sure that your organisation has a policy in place that can be pointed to – and removes the ambiguity for individual housing provider operatives – will ensure that minimum standards are increased and the likelihood of a genuine case of disrepair goes down significantly.
- Training and awareness
It’s crucial to provide cross-departmental training on the issues surrounding disrepair, and preventative measures such as thorough record-keeping, logging customer contact and following policies and procedures accurately. This boils down to the calibre of housing management and the level of coordination between repairs, customer service and tenancy management teams.
It also helps with understanding more about any given property’s performance. Only by patching up these operational weaknesses will landlords be better able to successfully defend unsubstantiated claims, and only compensate tenants who have genuinely been aggrieved.
The final way that housing providers can reduce the likelihood of disrepair is through the use of technology. Disrepair legislation is being written (like the Fitness for Human Habitation Act) in the new environment of always-on, always-connected devices. This legislation exists in a world in which housing heating can be remotely accessed and adjusted, remote alerts can reach a homeowner from across the world and big data has become integral to our day-to-day lives.
Housing providers who fail to utilise technology to address their issues with disrepair are leaving out one of the most valuable tools – and one with which the Fitness for Human Habitation Act was written in mind.