A recent case in the High Court may represent one of the last decisions on the Property Misdescriptions Act.
A Norfolk estate agent was prosecuted in the magistrates court for a breach of the Act. Specifically it was alleged that the description of the garden as having an area of “approximately 0.75 acres (sts)” was misleading and so a breach of the Act. The actual area was 0.45 acres.The agent argued that the use of the word “approximately” and the acronym “sts”, meaning “subject to survey”, would indicate that the figure given was not to be relied on. The magistrates court noted that the purchaser had simply relied on the figure and undertaken no independent measurement at all and, on this basis, acquitted the estate agent.
The prosecuting local authority appealed to the High Court by way of “case stated”. This means that the prosecution contested the Magistrates interpretation of the law and it was sent to the High Court for them to rule on what the law says.
The High Court sharply disagreed with the magistrates. The phrase “sts” was not very well known. The use of the word approximately might have assisted in the case of a small error and would allow for some leeway but it would not allow for an error of this size. The agent’s suggestion that the phrasing meant that their measurements were not to be relied on was also given short shrift, giving a figure clearly meant that it should be relied on to some degree.
The matter will now be returned to the magistrates court for them to hear again in the light of the High Court ruling. In reality this means the agent will be found guilty and the magistrates will then pass sentence.
The PMA is shortly to be repealed in favour of the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs). The CPRs cover all the same matters as the PMA but have a far wider remit. They will extend to cover lettings businesses as well as estate agents. They also allow for a much wider range of issues to be captured, including those which relate to the way the agent operates his business.
There is not a great deal of information about the manner in which the CPRs will apply in estate and lettings agency. The very wide way they are worded means that they cover all of the same things as the PMA but also deal with sharp or misleading practice by the agent himself. This case will not be binding under the CPRs as it is different legislation. However, it is indicative that the use of qualifiers intended to cast doubt on a measurement will only be a protection up to a point and not where the measurement is wildly inaccurate.