Tortious claims of conspiracy, interference with goods, negligence and misfeasance in a Southwark public office settled in the High Court as unlawfully evicted tenant receives justice at last

Ref. AA v London Borough of Southwark [2014] EWHC 500 (QB)

In this case, a tenant had been the legal occupant of a flat since 2001. He paid the rent predominantly from housing benefit, with the shortfall made up from his own funds. By 2012, that shortfall had reached £18.59 per week. Throughout his tenancy, the tenant had been in arrears, with the shortfall over and above housing benefit being paid only partially and intermittently. At the time of eviction, he owed Southwark Borough Council £2,353.26.

As early as 2006, a possession order was made, though this was suspended by a succession of four orders – the last being on 6 May 2010 – requiring the tenant to meet his weekly rent liability and pay off the outstanding amounts in small, weekly installments.

The 2010 order was followed by no payments, resulting in Southwark applying for execution of a warrant for possession. Unfortunately, as the High Court Judge later pointed out, since the original order had been suspended more than six years before the council wished to execute it, Southwark was not entitled to apply for a warrant, an administrative procedure that did not involve a judge, without first obtaining permission to apply from a judge.

Regardless, Southwark executed a warrant on 23 April 2013 and proceeded to remove the entire contents of the claimant’s flat including his passport, laptops, papers, personal belongings and furniture. The items were then taken to, and destroyed in, a refuse disposal facility. The result was that the claimant was homeless and without financial resources for over a year.

His Honour Judge Anthony Thornton QC, providing a summary of his judgment, said the case constituted a conspiracy involving three employees in Southwark’s housing department “to the effect that the claimant should be evicted at all costs and without the opportunity to obtain a further suspension of the possession order obtained in November 2006”.

He went on to state:

“Having obtained the warrant, the defendant’s housing officer failed to place the full facts of the case to the court at the hearing of the claimant’s application for a further suspension,”

“The conspiracy also involved the relevant defendant’s housing officers short-circuiting the defendant’s standard procedures that should have been followed before and during the execution of the warrant and the taking of a dispossessed tenant’s possessions into storage for safe-keeping.”

Crucially, he emphasised that these procedures were intended to ensure that any execution of a warrant for possession was fairly, safely and lawfully undertaken.

The result of Southwark’s actions were, the Judge added:

“…an attempted cover-up of the unlawful nature of the original conspiracy and of the unlawful consequences of that conspiracy that had led to the claimant’s unlawful eviction, the destruction of the claimant’s possessions and his homelessness without financial resources for a lengthy period,”

The final judgment confirmed that the decisions of the Court of Appeal in Hackney LBC v White (1996) 28 HLR 219 and Patel v Singh [2002] EWCA Civ 1938 were applicable to Southwark’s application for a warrant in this case and to the claimant’s eviction pursuant to that warrant. The eviction was unlawful and an abuse of process “both because the warrant was issued without the prior permission of the court and in the manner in which it was executed”.

Further, three officers exercised their powers as public officers in relation to a local authority secure tenancy “for an improper motive with the intention of harming the claimant by having him evicted when there were no reasonable grounds for his eviction and by arranging for his possessions to be seized and destroyed unlawfully”.

The claimant was entitled to substantial damages that extended to special or general damages, aggravated and exemplary damages and damages for breach of contract and for the various torts he had been subject to and for equitable remuneration for the lost work stored on his hard drives, discs and memory sticks and for his lost photographs as well as a remedy for the loss of his tenancy on a basis still to be determined.

Though the damages were later settled confidentially out of court between the parties, one would imagine this was a substantial sum. Southwark were subsequently quick to emphasise that swift disciplinary action was brought upon the offending staff members.

Certainly, they will be looking hard at the failures which led to this series of events and councils across England will, we are sure, be keen to avoid similar failings.

 23.10.14                                                                                                                                              SRJ

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