Tenancy succession or Possession?

Recently I was in trial on a possession claim which, in essence, came down to the question of whether the second defendant had (statutorily) succeeded to his mother’s secure tenancy. Save for a public law argument concerning the sufficiency of the local authority’s pre-proceedings investigation into the succession claim there was little to distinguish this case from many others that frequently come before the courts.

However, I thought it might be of interest to put down in writing some brief reflections on the trial process, and the necessary issues of evidence inevitably facing the judge and parties in cases such as this. I have previously written on succession insofar as it concerned the enforceability of tenancy terms extending the statutory succession rights.

Returning to the claim in issue, the second defendant had the burden of showing he had lived at the relevant property at the time of his mother’s death as his only or principal home, and that he had resided with her throughout the period of 12 months immediately preceding that time: see section 87, Housing Act 1985 (and note restriction of section 160(6), Localism Act 2011 amendments to succession rights, as now found at section 86A of the 1985 Act, to 1 April 2012 and later tenancies) along with Governors of the Peabody Donation Fund v Grant (1983) 6 H.L.R. 41:

“The learned county court judge, rightly in my judgment, held that the burden was on the tenant to bring herself within the terms of that section. He further went on to hold that the tenant had to show two things: she had to show that this flat was her only or principal home at the time of Mr Charles Murphy’s death and that she was not only a member of Mr Charles Murphy’s family but had resided with him throughout the period of twelve months ending with the tenant’s death.” (Donaldson LJ at 44)

The question of succession is one of fact. The “Encyclopaedia of Housing Law” says at R-003:

“The question whether or not the would-be successor has been residing with the deceased is one of fact: Middleton v Bull (1951) 2 T.L.R. 1010, CA. Accordingly, where there is evidence which both supports and undermines the would-be successor, it will be difficult for the court to resolve the issue other than at trial, see e.g. Evans v Brent LBC, QBD, December 18, 2012, HousingView, January 7, 2013.”

The local authority evidence in the cases leading to this post largely centred upon the hearsay information obtained by the managing agents charged with the original investigation, and was presented ultimately, because of employee changes, by an officer not directly involved in the case. The second defendant on the other hand relied upon not only his own statement, but also that of one of his sisters and both attended trial to give oral evidence.

I would highlight the main issues arising from the trial, its preparation and outcome as follows:

  1. Electoral roll information, occupant details held by the landlord, and the benefit position of the deceased (e.g. non declaration of would-be successor living at the same property) are all potentially useful pieces of evidence but are rarely determinative on their own.
  2. Similarly, neighbour feedback, often hearsay, can be helpful to the central questions at issue but (usually) are simply part of a wider body of information to be assessed. For example, the fact that the would-be successor was often at the property or undertook significant caring responsibilities towards the tenant does not necessarily or of itself show the required quality of residence.
  3. Identifying accommodation where the would-be successor might have been residing contrary to their stated position is clearly helpful (though is not essential), and allows a positive case to be asserted by the landlord (e.g. evidence of ATM usage and the geographical location of the same as shown on bank statements).
  4. Inconsistencies both within the would-be successor’s own evidence and between their position and information provided by others is crucial not only as to their credibility but also to undermine, where appropriate, the stated position. To give two examples from the recent trial, (a) the sister said her brother had really pretty much always lived at their mother’s upon returning to London in 2000, whereas he said he had moved in to help care for her in around 2016/early 2017; and (b) his letter claiming succession had “nearly” crossed out before “a year” when describing how long he had lived with his mother, and his answer to the Judge’s question about this was not impressive (including referencing the fact he had been told he must have been there for at least a year).
  5. Evidence not sought or made available by or on behalf of the would-be successor, including the absence of certain (expected) witnesses, can be strongly indicative of a weak case. I have previously written specifically on this issue.
  6. There maybe some credibility and truth in the would-be successor’s case even if ultimately they do not succeed in defending the possession claim. For example, they may well have been providing care and support to their mother (tenant), and staying with her at times. But note in particular the authority of LB Islington v Freeman [2011] P.T.S.R. 1695 re quality of residence:

28. The authorities also clearly establish that mere physical presence is not enough to amount to “residing with”. There must be to a significant degree an intention which can be characterised as making a home with the tenant – not just staying there.
29. Moreover – and this was not in dispute – the nature of the occupation must have the necessary qualities of “residing with” for the whole year before the death.”

It is frequently difficult to accurately predict the outcome of any trial in succession cases – the uncertainty as to how the judge will treat the evidence (or lack of) and as to how the would-be successor and their witnesses “come across” under cross examination being but two factors underlining such uncertainty.

As an example of the former, a few years ago I had one judge “brush aside” the fact that the would-be successor in fact claimed benefits from an address other than that of her supposed partner/co-habitant (i.e. the tenant) because he found that she simply didn’t bother changing her address when she moved in with her partner and that lots of people did the same.

In the case that has prompted this post, the judge conversely was exercised by the fact that the would-be successor used a different address for benefit purposes until a few months before his mother’s death when it was changed to hers, and did not accept his explanation for it not being changed earlier and at the very least noted the paucity of evidence with respect to the same.

These claims are not necessarily fraud cases – a possession order may not be made or the court may accept the factual version of events put forward by the would-be successor yet not find it sufficient to make positive findings on the only or principal home and/or residence questions. Given the frequent and genuine connection many defendants have with the deceased tenant’s home they are not the easiest of cases and tough decisions often have to be made.

What many claims show is that not only is the assessment of evidence, naturally, central to any final determination but the absence of evidence maybe of similar or greater import.

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