“A serious abuse of public housing resources for personal gain”

These were the words of a district judge concluding his judgment yesterday (3 June 2021) in a sub-letting possession case brought by a housing association. Regrettably such cases are not unusual and this blog has considered sub-letting matters previously.

However, I thought it might be helpful to highlight a few issues that stood out in this case which may assist and inform those dealing with similar cases.

Firstly, significant evidence requires, in most instances, a rebuttal / explanation. For example here, why were there padlocks on the internal room doors? Why did one of the occupants found at the property by the association describe the defendant’s claimed bedroom as a storage room? Why did the electoral roll evidence obtained by way of the credit reference report show multiple people registered there in the last 10 years or so, and often for long periods? Who were they? Why did the defendant’s bank accounts show so many cash payments into her account over the years?

The absence of clear (or any) answers to these matters in the pleaded case or witness evidence is significant. The attempt to “fill the gap” during cross examination may make matters even worse (and did here).

Secondly, sometimes you need to step back and see the bigger picture. A 2nd witness statement by the defendant served less than a week before trial is undoubtedly frustrating and should not have been necessary so late but what is to be served by opposing its submission? That is not to say there will never be a good reason – e.g. it raises new matters you would have wished to investigate – but where it largely says more of the same (e.g. my bills always went to the demised premises’ address) opposition to its admission can appear churlish, insecure and unattractive. In this instance it actually helped the association’s case because they could say that the defendant had failed even at that late stage to provide sufficient responses to the evidence seemingly against her.

Thirdly, your evidence may not have a knock-out point but that is not fatal to the case. Indeed my skeleton argument said as much: “It may be argued on behalf of the first defendant that individually none of the pieces of information provide conclusive proof of any sub-letting”. To paraphrase the district judge’s more artistic position on this, “Individually all of the above may not be enough but put all the pieces together and it beats with a single rhythm”. See also Lord Justice Mummery’s remarks in Lambeth LBC v Vandra [2006] H.L.R. 19 at para. 13:

“There was no direct evidence, it is true, but there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable inference could be made about a state of affairs in which a number of people were paying to live in Miss Vandra’s flat and were in fact living there.”

Fourthly, remember that not every question in cross examination is designed to “catch the witness out”, though you may well be laying the trail. For example, it had been said that one of the occupants found at the premises was the defendant’s sister. A little time was spent at the start of the cross examination of the defendant asking her to explain her family set up. It became clear by that point that the said occupant was not after all her sister, and the other person found with her was not a family member as claimed.

Lastly, often one of the most compelling features of a case is what is not there more than what is. Why was there nothing (email, letter, statement, etc) from those persons found at the premises? Why was there nothing from the defendant’s adult children who apparently sometimes stayed there? Why was there nothing from the husband (not least to refute the notion that his wife lived with him)? Why was there nothing from the neighbours who surely after 26 years of the defendant apparently living at the premises could have confirmed as much? Don’t forget to consider and use authorities such as Wisniewski v Central Manchester Health Authority [1998] PIQR P324 where Brooke LJ considered the court’s ability to draw adverse inferences from the absence or silence of a witness (that can of course go both ways).

Conclusion
The district judge had little hesitation in finding that there had been a sub-letting of the whole of the premises, and that the notice to quit had brought the remaining common law tenancy to an end at its expiry. Even had it have been only of part the district judge indicated that he would have made an outright order – this was not the case for a second chance.

As well as the “usual orders” an unlawful profit order in the sum of £145,177.89 was made against the defendant based on estimated figures of the rents received by her over many years.

Finally, I must pay particular tribute to association’s counter fraud specialist, Raj Vine, and the intelligence officer Magnus Lærke-Hall for their fantastic and crucial work without which there could have been no successful outcome. As always, I was also served by excellent solicitors, this time in the form of Katrina Robinson and, before her, Victoria Smith of Capsticks.

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