“Only or principal home” and an outright order for possession

Possession Claim

I acted for a local authority today in a possession claim brought against one of its secure tenants because of alleged breaches of tenancy.  The terms of the tenancy agreement in issue were:

  1. You must use the property as your only or principal home.
  2. You must not leave the property for more than a single period of 21 days without informing us in advance in writing with details of how we can gain access to the property during the period of absence. You must also tell us in writing when you anticipate returning to the property and the reason for your absence. If you do not inform us, we may treat you as having parted with possession of the property and take action to repossess it.

Of course the first term replicates the Housing Act 1985 (“the Act”) where section 79(1) provides that a secure tenancy only remains as such for so long as the landlord and tenant conditions are met. The latter is provided for at section 81:

“The tenant condition is that the tenant is an individual and occupies the dwelling-house as his only or principal home; or, where the tenancy is a joint tenancy, that each of the joint tenants is an individual and at least one of them occupies the dwelling-house as his only or principal home.”

The factual basis of claim 

The tenant had from February 2013 to early 2017 obtained and undertook employment in a food take-away shop some 50 miles away from her authority flat (“the flat”), with accommodation being provided above the shop.  Her son was placed in a school in the county where the work was located rather than where the flat was.

She maintained that she visited and stayed at the flat on a regular basis, and at least once a week as a minimum, though this was disputed by the hearsay evidence of three neighbours and, more significantly, meter records in respect of the water, gas and electricity accounts for the flat which showed little, and for some periods no, usage.

She did though ensure that the rent and council tax was paid, and did not sub-let all or part of the flat at any time.

In 2016 the tenant submitted an application for the right to buy the flat, and some time afterwards the local authority received information that she had not been living there.  Detailed investigations were undertaken though by the time the notice to quit, which had thereafter been served, had expired it was not disputed that the tenant had moved with her family back into the flat such that the notice was of no effect.

Possession proceedings were issued following service of a notice seeking possession and the authority relied on (discretionary) Ground 1 of Schedule 2 to the Act:

“Rent lawfully due from the tenant has not been paid or an obligation of the tenancy has been broken or not performed.” (emphasis added)

 

Relevant Case-law

There are numerous cases surrounding the whole question and meaning of ‘only or principal home’ though the court focused on three.

In Islington Borough Council v Boyle [2011] EWCA Civ 1450; [2012] PTSR 1093 the Master of the Rolls set down the relevant principles to consider when addressing the this concept:

“55 I summarised the propositions to be derived from those and other cases in Amoah v Barking and Dagenham London Borough Council (2001) 82 P & CR DG12 . In the light of the submissions in the present case, and further reflection, I would summarise as follows the relevant principles to be applied in determining whether a tenant continues to occupy a dwelling as his or her home, for the purposes of the 1985 Act, despite living elsewhere. First, absence by the tenant from the dwelling may be sufficiently continuous or lengthy or combined with other circumstances as to compel the inference that, on the face of it, the tenant has ceased to occupy the dwelling as his or her home.In every case, the question is one of fact and degree. Secondly, assuming the circumstances of absence are such as to give rise to that inference: (1) the onus is on the tenant to rebut the presumption that his or her occupation of the dwelling as a home has ceased; (2) in order to rebut the presumption the tenant must have an intention to return; (3) while there is no set limit to the length of absence and no requirement that the intention must be to return by a specific date or within a finite period, the tenant must be able to demonstrate a “practical possibility” or “a real possibility” of the fulfilment of the intention to return within a reasonable time; and (4) the tenant must also show that his or her inward intention is accompanied by some formal, outward and visible sign of the intention to return, which sign must be sufficiently substantial and permanent and otherwise such that in all the circumstances it is adequate to rebut the presumption that the tenant, by being physically absent from the premises, has ceased to be in occupation of it. Thirdly, two homes cases, that is to say where the tenant has another property in which he or she voluntarily takes up full-time residence, must be viewed with particular care in order to assess whether the tenant has ceased to occupy as a home the place where he or she formerly lived. Fourthly, whether or not a tenant has ceased to occupy premises as his or her home is a question of fact. In the absence of an error of law, the trial judge’s findings of primary fact cannot be overturned on appeal unless they were perverse, in the sense that they exceeded the generous ambit within which reasonable disagreement about the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence is possible; but the appeal court may in an appropriate case substitute its own inferences drawn from those primary facts.” (emphasis added)

He went on to consider the “two homes cases” later in his judgment:

“65 In the light of the cases, I would summarise as follows the principles (in some cases reflecting those in para 55 above) which apply to the identification of which of two or more homes of the tenant is or was the tenant’s principal home. First, the length or other circumstances of the tenant’s absence may raise the inference that the dwelling which is the subject of the proceedings ceased to be the tenant’s principal home so as to cast on the tenant the burden of proving the contrary. Secondly, in order to rebut that presumption, it is not sufficient for the tenant to prove that at the material time it was his or her subjective intention and belief that the dwelling remained the principal home. The objective facts must bear out the reality of that belief and intention both in the sense that the intention and belief are or were genuinely held and also that the intention and belief themselves reflect reality. The reason for the absence, the length and other circumstances of the absence and (where relevant) the anticipated future duration of the absence, as well as statements and conduct of the tenant, will all be relevant to that objective assessment. Thirdly, the court’s focus is on the enduring intention of the tenant, which, depending on the circumstances, may not be displaced by fleeting changes of mind. Fourthly, the issue is one of fact to be determined in the light of the evidence as a whole, and in respect of which the trial judge’s findings of primary fact can only be overturned on appeal if they were perverse in the sense that I have mentioned earlier; but the appeal court may in an appropriate case substitute its own inferences drawn from those primary facts.” (emphasis again added).

The defendant’s representative played special regard to Crawley BC v Sawyer [1988] 20 HLR 98.  The court in this case held that there was no material difference between occupying premises as a “home” and occupying them as a “residence”. It was a case in which for a period of about a year a secure tenant had gone to live with his girlfriend and had thereafter returned to the property. During that period he had paid rent and rates, visited the property once a month and at some stage had spent a week back there. His evidence was that he had not abandoned the property and had had every intention of returning to it. The trial judge found that, even during that period of about a year, the property had remained, if not his only home, at least his “principal home” for the purpose of section 81 and so the local authority was not entitled to possession of it. The Court of Appeal held that the trial judge had been entitled on the evidence to take the view that the tenant had been living with his girlfriend only on a temporary basis and that, indeed, his principal home remained the property during that period. At p. 102 Parker LJ said:

“Going through the whole thread of these matters is the common principle that, in order to occupy premises as a home, first, there must be signs of occupation – that is to say, there must be furniture and so forth so that the house can be occupied as a home – and, secondly, there must be an intention, if not physically present, to return to it.”

 

Lord Justice Lewison confirmed in Havering LBC v Dove and another [2017] EWCA Civ 156; [2017] PTSR 1233 that the “Boyle principles” applied as much to a case where the subject property was not “fully used” as to a case of abandonment:

“22 In my judgment these principles are engaged not only where the tenant is absent from the property in the sense of not being physically present at all. They are also engaged where the tenant ceases to occupy the property as his or her only or main home even if he or she continues to occupy it as a home; as, for example, where what had once been the tenant’s only home becomes no more than a weekend or holiday home. Moreover the question of an intention to return (which often features in these cases) is in reality an intention to revert to a previous pattern of existence…”

Judgment

The court found that the authority had proven breaches of both tenancy terms relied upon.  In particular, the tenant had not rebutted the presumption that her occupation of the flat had ceased, and did not have the requisite intention to return there within a reasonable time.

Those were issues of “fact and degree” of course and perhaps of more interest was the court’s treatment of the nature of breach.  The authority had stressed it represented a serious misuse of social housing more in line with sub-letting and obtaining a tenancy by false representation cases than, say, rent arrears and anti-social behaviour complaints.  The court accepted this submission.

There was evidence before the court that there were over 1000 people waiting for a 2-bedroom property on the authority’s allocation scheme, at a cost of over £9000 per year for each household. Though the tenant had not immediately profited from her actions, as a secure tenant she would enjoy the right to buy and a significant benefit in the form of the statutory discounts available.

The court therefore determined that it was not only reasonable to make a possession order but that such an order should be made outright, along with the usual costs order.

Lessons Learnt

Taking too much from any case in this area of law is fraught with caveats and warnings.  Factual circumstances, evidence available and produced, and the inherent vagaries of the county court mean that cases such as this perhaps at best demonstrate what may be possible in the right circumstances.

The local authority investigations were here of the highest order, and the caution interview undertaken with regard to the right to buy application of special assistance (for example, it confirmed that the tenant knew what her obligations were under the tenancy with regard to use of the flat, and highlighted discrepancies in her accounts of how many times she visited the flat in the disputed 4-year period).

In the right case, evidence of the impact of a property effectively “lying empty” is helpful, such as a landlord’s pressing housing requirements in relation to would-be tenants, as is consideration of the cost of investigations.

Like a false representation ground, there is often little (or, at least, limited) point in suspending any order for possession on this Ground, but today’s case does demonstrate that even where a notice to quit route to possession is not available possession action may still be appropriate and successful.

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