Lambeth fights rent defaulter repairs case

Roger Pearson reports on a council's efforts to overthrow a county court ruling that found in favour of a tolerated trespasser.

The London Borough of Lambeth is again at the centre of a battle over council property after the scandal involving its failure to evict a squatter form a £200,000 council house earlier this year.

The council was successfully sued for damages by a tenant against whom it obtained a possession order for failure to pay rent, but again whom it failed to evict.

Now the council is waiting for the outcome of an appeal against that decision. If it loses, the result could set a precedent throughout the country in which bad council tenants turn on their landlords and sue them.

In 1992, Lambeth obtained a suspended possession order against Hawa Rogers within eight months of her taking over the property in Tulse Hill on the basis she owed £871.70 rent arrears.

Two months after the granting of that order, Rogers had run up further arrears. But instead of formally terminating the tenancy and evicting her, the council allowed her to remain in the property at Tulse Hill Estate, as what is legally known as a "tolerated trespasser".

However, in a case which has sent a shock wave through the country's local authority housing departments, Rogers sued the council, claiming it failed to meet repair obligations on the property.

She won the claim at Lambeth County Court in February this year. A judge held that even though she had been the subject of a possession order and owed over £2,000 in rent, because the council had accepted her in the property as a "tolerated trespasser" it was under a duty to carry out repairs.

Rogers was awarded £4,741.82 in damages in respect of the failure of the council to carry out repairs and the rent arrears were deducted from that amount, giving Rogers a clean slate.

The judge also discharged the possession order as the rent arrears had been paid.

That decision is now being challenged at the Appeal Court where Lords Justices Simon Brown, Otton and Mummery have reserved judgment.

In its appeal the council claims that while the amount of money in this particular case is not large, it is involved in a number of similar situations which could involve substantial sums.

It claims that the county court judge was "unreasonable and unjust" to award damages to Rogers and to set aside the original possession order.

It also claims that other local authorities are in a similar predicament.