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Law Lords 'neighbours from hell' decision major relief for social landlords

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Law Lords 'neighbours from hell' decision major relief for social landlords

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Published by Hannah Wooderson for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Local Government

Law Lords 'neighbours from hell' decision major relief for social landlords Law Lords 'neighbours from hell' decision major relief for social landlords

Local authorities and housing associations breathed a huge sigh of relief after the House of Lords agreed that they cannot be held responsible for the violent or unruly behaviour inflicted on their tenants by others, including other tenants.

It follows the case of Anne Mitchell, the widow of James Mitchell, who was killed by a violent neighbour. Ms Mitchell sued Glasgow City Council for failing in its duty of care towards Mr Mitchell even though social landlords do not owe a duty of care to protect their tenants.

Gary Ekpenyoung, an expert in social housing at law firm Browne Jacobson, said: “This decision will be a huge sigh of relief for social landlords up and down the county. Had the decision gone the other way it would have had far reaching consequences and would have opened up the floodgates for multiple claims.”

The decision centered on the case of Mr Mitchell who moved into a property on the Moss Park estate of Glasgow in March 1986. His neighbour was Mr Drummond. Both properties were owned by Glasgow City Council.

Trouble began in December 1994 when Mr Mitchell complained to Mr Drummond for playing loud music in his home. Between 1994 until 2001 there were countless incidences of verbal and physical abuse directed at Mr Mitchell and his family by Mr Drummond.

Subsequently Mr Drummond was warned by Glasgow City Council that they were considering possession proceedings. In January 2001 the Council served on Mr Drummond a Notice of Proceedings for Recovery of Possession of the property. On 31 July 2001 the Council arranged a meeting with Mr Drummond to discuss his behaviour and the Notice of Proceedings. At the meeting the Council explained that they would be issuing a fresh Notice of Proceedings and that they would continue to monitor his anti-social behaviour which could result in his eviction. Mr Drummond lost his temper and became abusive at the meeting, however he then appeared to calm down and apologised to the Council’s staff. He then left the meeting and violently assaulted Mr Mitchell, leaving him with injuries from which he subsequently died.

Mrs Mitchell sought to claim damages from the Council on the basis that they should have kept Mr Mitchell and the police informed of the steps they were taking against Mr Drummond and in particular should have notified them of the meeting on 31 July 2001.

Judgment was handed down on 18 February 2009. Lord Hope noted that if such a duty to warn was imposed, the Council would have had to determine, step by step at each stage, whether or not the actions that they proposed to take in fulfillment of their responsibilities as landlords required a warning to be given, and to whom. They would have had to defer taking that step until the warning had been received by everyone and an opportunity given for it to be acted on. The more attentive the Council was to their ordinary duties as landlords, the more onerous the duty to warn would become.

Lord Hope went on to state that these problems suggest that to impose a duty to warn, together with the risk that action could be taken against them by anybody who suffered loss, injury or damage if they had received no warning, would deter social landlords from intervening to reduce the incidence or antisocial behaviour.

In giving his judgment, Lord Hope stated that, as a general rule: “a duty to warn another person that he is at risk of loss, injury or damage as a result of the criminal act of a third party will arise only where the person who is said to be under that duty has by his words or conduct assumed responsibility for the safety of the person who is at risk”.

The Council had not assumed responsibility to advise Mr Mitchell of the steps they were taking or induced him to rely on them to do so. Accordingly it was held that it would not be fair, just or reasonable to hold that the Council were under a duty to warn Mr Mitchell of the steps they were taking.

 

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