One of the most common questions that tenants ask is whether there are any landlord rights over tenant’s belongings. And the answer is a resounding NO!
The law that covers this is the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 and it applies whether a landlord is retaining a tenant’s belongings because the tenant has left owing rent and the landlord is refusing to return them unless it is paid; or the tenant has left the property but not taken all their possessions with them.
So let’s have a look at both scenarios:
The landlord is holding the tenant’s belongings in lieu of money that is owed
Under no circumstance is a landlord allowed to do this. A ‘Tort’ relates to civil law rather than criminal law and is a civil wrong. By holding the tenant’s belongings “hostage” the landlord is breaking the law and this allows the tenant to bring a civil action against the landlord not only for the return of their belongings but also for significant damages.
Many landlords believe that they have a right to retain a tenant’s possessions if they are owed rent and prior to the passing of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, they could using “detinue” in tort law. However, detinue disappeared when the 1977 Act came into force.
You can see some recent cases where landlords have been penalised heavily for failing to return tenant’s possessions by click here
The offence committed is described as follows in The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977:
1. Definition of “wrongful interference with goods”
In this Act “ wrongful interference” , or “ wrongful interference with goods” , means—
(a) conversion of goods (also called trover),
(b) trespass to goods,
(c) negligence so far at it results in damage to goods or to an interest in goods.
(d) subject to section 2, any other tort so far as it results in damage to goods or to an interest in goods.
If a landlord is owed money by a tenant the landlord must seek an order from the county court for repayment of the debt.
The tenant has left belongings behind after vacating the property
In this scenario the landlord is legally obliged to protect the tenant’s belongings. Removing, storing and protecting them will almost certainly involve the landlord in some unwelcome expense. The 1977 Act provides some guidance on this too:
“if a tenant appears to have abandoned their belongings it could be argued that the goods may be evidence of an intention to return and therefore the property has not in point of fact been officially abandoned.”
In the case of a dispute as to ownership of these possessions, the landlord is not allowed to sell or dispose of them until the dispute is resolved.
The landlord also has a legal obligation to give the tenant notice of any intention to dispose of the possessions (normally 21 days). However, if the landlord is owed money by the tenant BEFORE such notice is served, the landlord must by law retain the property for a minimum of three months before disposing of them.
If the landlord, subsequent to the correct notice being served, sells the tenant’s goods he or she is permitted to claw back reasonable costs that have been incurred in the removal, storage and sale. However, the law expects the best price to be obtained and the landlord to pay back to the tenant any amount above the landlord’s reasonable costs.