Sherlock Holmes once solved a case by noting a curiosity: the fact that a dog did nothing in the night time.  He might well have struggled to make sense of what went on in the Nottingham Magistrates Court this week. 

According to public opinion, it goes without saying that all landlords are evil – doggedly so as the press would have us believe.  Landlords are rich and powerful and use their position to make money by taking advantage of people who are poor and powerless.  From the days of the Victorian melodrama to the current obsession with buy-to-let landlords, the landlord has symbolised the out of control capitalist.  Perhaps the most famous landlord in recent years was Peter Rachman who operated in the Notting Hill area of London in the 1950s and early 1960s.  As well as managing to have affairs with both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, he became so notorious for exploiting his tenants that the word “Rachmanism” entered the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym for the exploitation and intimidation of tenants.

But there’s always another side to the story and most landlords will tell you horror stories of rogue tenants. These can vary in seriousness from the tenant who runs a cannabis farm or a brothel while using illegal electricity obtained by hacking into the meter to a tenant who pays no rent and trashes the place on leaving having removed everything of value.   While rogue tenants may not be the newspapers darlings they do exist and it is often difficult to take effective steps against them.  Even if you can find the perpetrator after they have left, the costs of pursuing them is often too high to be worthwhile especially as the average tenant has very few resources to meet a damages claim.

A recent example of the tail wagging the dog, or more accurately, trashing the house, was the case of Martin Starsmore from Nottingham.  Starsmore rented a property and signed a tenancy agreement which stipulated no pets, but he and his wife moved in with a border collie dog and three cats.  To add to the problems, Starsmore claimed to suffer from agoraphobia as a result of which he never walked his dog. After the property was vacated, an inspection found dog urine and excrement, with other damage throughout the flat, including to the window boards and cooker.  Building work repair costs were £4,000 and included replacing floorboards, while the carpets had to be replaced at a cost of £1,012. The total damage was put at £12,000.  Unusually, Stansmore and his wife were charged with fraudulently signing a tenancy agreement because they knew when signing it that they intended to break its terms

In court, Starsmore admitted the offence (his wife was acquitted) and his sole punishment was to be ordered to pay compensation to the landlord in the grand total of £1000.  Together with the deposit that he forfeited of £795, this still left the landlord more than £10,200 out of pocket. The prosecution made the rather strange claim that it had been difficult to know what to charge Starsmore with saying that it could not be criminal damage, because it was alleged that the pets were at fault, and they could not be tried. The magistrates then added to the confusion by saying that they were not convinced that all of the damage could be attributed to the animals.

This case indicates the difficulties in managing buy to let properties.  Even in what seems to have been a gross case of tenant default, the civil process failed and the criminal sanctions were woefully inadequate to act as any form of real deterrent to a defaulting tenant.

So what is to be learned?  Well, the fact that the tenant had a tight tenancy agreement which dealt with the specific issue complained of undoubtedly made a prosecution realistic and therefore the making of a compensation order easier and it looks as if the deposit was properly held so that it was possible for the landlord to claim against it for some of the damage.  That said, the decision simply reinforces the dog’s breakfast which is the current balance between landlord’s and tenant’s rights and the public perception that landlords are rottweillers unfairly attacking the innocent poodles that are tenants.

Perhaps they all ought to go to dog obedience classes.