On suing your landlord (deposit reclaim)
Nowadays I don’t think there are many private landlords dumb enough to not protect their tenant’s deposits since the law has been in place for well over a decade. However, just in case your landlord is as much of a slumlord as my previous one, I thought I would recant my experience of successfully doing a deposit reclaim. Especially because I found London Renters’ Union and Shelter to be utterly useless in terms of help and advice. (Although Shelter’s legal website is very useful and informative.)
I discovered my deposit was not protected at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. I was living in a house-share and one of my flatmates was a zero-hours contract, minimum wage retail worker. When lockdown suddenly happened, she had enough money in the bank to pay her rent or to eat, not both. Since we had no way of knowing how long lockdown would last or when she would get an income again, and since her low wage job meant she had no savings, I naturally told her to keep her money for food.
When I explained to my thankfully now ex-slumlord that April’s rent would be one quarter short (it was a house-share of 4), my slumlord responded in a way I should have anticipated but didn’t. She is a counsellor and social worker so I erroneously assumed that she would have sympathy for the plight of my flatmate. What I should have remembered is that, formal profession aside, she also has a large portfolio of rental properties across north London that she invests no money in yet charges obscene amounts of rent for. Ergo, she is a greedy slumlord shyster whose only concern is for fattening her bank balance and living a life of luxury at the expense of renters in London.
It is important to note that I did not demand some kind of rent amnesty like the belligerent children of LRU (“can’t pay, won’t pay!”). Rather, I simply said that we would need to postpone payment of one quarter of one month’s rent until my flatmate had gotten an income again. I said that as soon as that happened, we would set up a payment plan and make up the shortfall. (As it happened, we managed to do so in about 6 weeks.)
The slumlord replied that this was “too big of a hit” and that she would use my deposit to cover the shortfall. This, of course, is illegal and precisely why the deposit protection schemes are in place. What her response alerted me to, was that my deposit was not in fact protected as I had assumed. Given that, by that point, I had paid her in total well over £150,000 in rent over the close to a decade I had rented from her, and given that I had only been short on rent once before in all that time, I felt that she could go fuck herself and decided to do a deposit reclaim.
Deposit reclaims are, in principle, quite easy to do. The helpful people at Flat Justice passed on a really good guide to doing a deposit reclaim by Unipol. I can’t seem to find this online anymore, so I have uploaded it here (PDF). Almost everything you need to know about doing a deposit reclaim in terms of procedure is in that document. Below I will talk only about what they missed out.
Firstly, and not particularly importantly, according to the Judge who heard my case, you cannot claim interest. You can try, as I did, but I was not awarded it as the Judge said it didn’t apply. (Of course, it’s entirely possible for a Judge to be wrong, so you could try anyway.)
Secondly, and most importantly, do not expect any help, support, or accurate advice from anyone who works for the courts. It is precisely the absolutely shocking and shambolic farce of the courts administration which has led me to get around to writing this blog.
The first utterly shambolic experience was in terms of actually filing the claim. I initially tried to do it at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch but they kept telling me that I had filled out the incorrect form and that what I needed to do was file an injunction. This was factually inaccurate and had I been a different kind of person (i.e. less informed and less stubborn), I would have taken their advice and put in the wrong form for the wrong type of claim and, given that I was up against the statute of limitations, I would have lost out on my ability to claim at all.
So my first piece of advice is: do not believe a word of whatever a court officer tells you. They are likely a fucking moron, almost certainly incapable of typing in comprehensible English, totally ignorant of the law, and at best indifferent to due process. (As an aside, I am currently having a similar experience with a different court for a different type of claim on the part of a client, so this is not an isolated experience.)
After about a week, I gave up trying to lodge my claim at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch and instead sent it to Mayor’s and City of London. At first this seemed to go well but the bar had been set so low by Shoreditch, that “going well” simply meant that the officer of the court had heard of a deposit reclaim and did not attempt to get me to fill out incorrect forms. I submitted and paid the fee and… well, that was the last positive experience I had at Mayor’s and City.
Without getting too bogged down in detail, the courts failed to provide me with any of the paperwork I am legally entitled to receive, such as copies of my slumlord’s acknowledgement of service stating her intentions to defend the claim, my slumlord’s “witness statement”, and my slumlord’s defence. To take the latter as an example, I emailed and called multiple times, and even hand delivered a letter to the Judge in order to attempt to get access to her defence all to no avail. I literally had to go through a formal complaints process in order to get the documents I should have received as a matter of course.
So my second piece of advice is: if you engage in any form of civil litigation, do not expect the courts to follow due process. Try not to lose your mind as you fight to get the paperwork you need and are entitled to. After panicking and managing to get some pro bono legal advice through the excellent Mary Ward Legal Centre, I learned from a very helpful solicitor that my experience was, sadly, totally normal. The lower courts are a total mess and an embarrassment to what is supposed to pass for justice in this country. Partly this is because of the amount of litigants in person (due to lack of legal aid), but also it is because the people employed by the courts are, in my experience, almost wholly incompetent.
If your slumlord is anything like my slumlord, they will likely lie in their so-called witness statement. For instance, my slumlord claimed that I was running a highly lucrative business from the house without her consent (I wish!) and that I was financially extorting her (LOL). Again, the advice I received from the brilliant solicitor was: don’t worry. It’s mudslinging and has no bearing on the claim. So let that be my third piece of advice should your slumlord be as morally bankrupt and dishonest as mine.
On the day of the hearing (which, by the way, was 7 months after filing the claim), I was on the bus travelling to the court when I received an email notifying me that the hearing was no longer in person and was actually via MS Teams. This was literally less than an hour before the hearing was due to start. Thankfully I noticed the email so was able to get off the bus and return home in time. But lawd have mercy: more unnecessary stress due to the total incompetence of the court administrators.
My fourth piece of advice is: do not expect the Judge to have read your trial bundle. I spent a very long time putting together the trial bundle as per the civil procedure rules and he literally had not read it. Thankfully I clocked this fairly early on, so when he asked me if I had anything to say, I summed up what I thought were the most important facts of the case.
And this leads me to my final piece of advice: carefully prepare a short speech arguing your case. From the way the Judge was very disinterestedly dealing with the case, I could tell I was not going to get anything more than the minimum (1 x my deposit). However, before issuing his decision, the Judge asked if I had anything I wanted to say. So I quickly adlibbed a speech explaining what had happened with my flatmate and the pandemic and my slumlord’s response. Thank god I took the opportunity, as it resulted in a massive change in his tone and he clearly became much more sympathetic towards me. In the end, he awarded me 2 x my deposit. Take that, slumlord!
In sum, doing a deposit reclaim is extremely simple in theory; in practice, it is stressful, complicated nightmare due to the incompetence of the courts. It’s still worth doing though, because it’s one of the few ways tenants can fight back against the parasites that a great many private landlords are. If you are a tenant doing a deposit reclaim and want any further advice, please feel free to contact me.