As a Residential Landlord it can seem like an answer to your prayers when a troublesome Tenant abandons the premises seemingly gifting possession back to you. However any Landlord needs to be very careful in such circumstances and there are traps for the unwary and possible civil and even criminal proceedings can follow where a Landlord too readily seizes the opportunity to retake possession and changes the locks. Some of the problems that can arise in such a situation are:-
1. If the Tenant is still under a Fixed Term Tenancy the Tenant will still have the right to return to the property during that term, i.e. if the Tenant seems to have abandoned the premises 9 months into a 12 month tenancy, the Tenant has a right to return until the end of the 12 month period. In those circumstances the Landlord has to let the Tenant back in.
2. If the Tenant has left any goods on the premises, not only is this evidence that they have not necessarily abandoned the premises, but the Landlord also has a duty of care to look after those goods known as Bailment.
3. Landlords should always be aware of a potential allegation of Harassment.
4. Illegal eviction, i.e. eviction without due process which can include locking a Tenant out of the premises by changing the locks, is not only a matter that can lead to the Landlord being pursued in the Civil Courts, but is also potentially a criminal offence which can lead to a Landlord ending up before a Criminal Court.
Sometimes premises are left wide open by Tenants who look as though they have left. A prudent Landlord can in those circumstances change the locks, but should then leave a notice on the door of the premises addressed to the Tenant telling them that the locks have been changed and that the Tenant can apply for a new key for the premises from the Landlord and in these circumstances a telephone contact number should be given.
If there is any doubt about whether a Tenant has left or not, it is still always safest to obtain a formal Possession Order from the Court. Once a Landlord has a Possession Order, then his right to repossession is unchallengeable.
We recently had a case where a landlord client genuinely thought the Tenant had agreed to leave the premises. He was subsequently prosecuted by the Local Authority in the Magistrates Court for Illegal Eviction. He was acquitted and the Court ordered that all his legal costs be paid, but he had a very worrying period of 4 months with a Court hearing hanging over his head due to not taking proper care where he thought a Tenant had left the premises.
Always take advice from your solicitor before taking action!