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Under scrutiny: the relationship between the housing officer and the tenant

The Court of Appeal recently considered whether the relationship between a landlord's agent and a tenant could constitute a relationship of trust and confidence, to the extent that a presumption of undue influence could arise.

In the case of Birmingham City Council v (1) Janet Beech (sued as Janet Howell) (2) Michael Beech [2014] EWCA Civ 830 the appellants appealed against a possession order in favour of the council.

Mrs Warren was the sole tenant of a three-bed property, having succeeded to the tenancy following the death of her husband. In 2007 Mrs Howell (one of Mrs Warren's daughters) and Mrs Howell's partner, Mr Beech, moved into the property in order to care for Mrs Warren. Mrs Howell and Mr Beech were on the local authority's waiting list for accommodation. Mrs Howell asked the housing officer, Mr Pumphrey, if she could be added to the tenancy. This was refused on the basis that the request had not been made by Mrs Warren. In late 2009, following a period of illness, Mrs Warren was moved into a residential care home. In February 2010 Mr Pumphrey visited Mrs Warren at the residential care home, where she signed a Notice to Quit which terminated the tenancy on 22 March 2010. The appellants failed to vacate and so possession proceedings were commenced against them. A possession order was made and the appellants appealed.

The appellants raised a number of defences. The main argument was that the relationship between Mrs Warren and Mr Pumphrey gave rise to a relationship of trust and confidence and that Mr Pumphrey had unduly influenced Mrs Warren into giving the Notice to Quit. The Court disagreed with this notion and held that the relationship between Mrs Warren and Mr Pumphrey amounted to council official and council tenant, with each party having separate and distinct contractual rights and obligations. Mrs Warren was entitled to anticipate that Mr Pumphrey would deal with her fairly and, even though Mr Pumphrey had been present at the time Mrs Warren signed the Notice to Quit, there had been no undue influence.

The appellants also argued that Mrs Warren suffered from cognitive impairment and that the Council were on notice that Mrs Warren lacked mental capacity, meaning that it was unconscionable to obtain the Notice to Quit in the circumstances. The Court did not agree with this submission as the social work report stated that Mrs Warren had the capacity to make decisions.

The Court noted that even if the appellants had succeeded in their arguments, the Council would have been in a position to serve a Notice to Quit and, as Mrs Warren was herself a successor tenant, Mrs Howell would not of been in a position to succeed to the tenancy.

The circumstances of this case are such that it appears the appellants were never going to obtain the outcome they were seeking - namely to remain in the property. The case does, however, serve as timely reminder of the importance of taking care when obtaining Notices to Quit from tenants, particularly where there could be capacity issues.