The Gasman came to call
I was interested to read, in the 3 October edition of "Inside Housing" magazine, an article by Mark Henderson, Chief Executive of Home Housing Group, in which he writes of the frustrations experienced by housing providers when tenants refuse their landlord access to properties for gas safety inspections which the providers are required by law to carry out.
The original article in "Inside Housing" can be read here http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/ticking-time-bomb-of-gas-safety/7005961.article . In the article, Mr Henderson rightly points to the "justice deficit" faced by providers where, on the one hand, they understandably face hefty fines if they fail to carry out proper inspections but on the other hand the law appears to give them limited support in getting such inspections done in a timely manner.
This reminded me very much of a case that I handled several years ago for a provider of social housing. In that situation, the client had a tenant who had all manner of issues in his life, including a history of substance abuse, and who was refusing to allow them access to his flat (which was within a larger block) to carry out gas safety inspections. The client, and then Rollits, wrote to the man in question a number of times seeking access, without success. Letters were either ignored, or appointments were made but not kept by the tenant.
Eventually, the decision was taken (and not at all lightly on the client's part) to commence proceedings in the County Court seeking an injunction ordering the tenant to allow the landlord access for the purposes of carrying out gas safety inspections. The injunction was duly obtained, and again an appointment was made for the landlord to visit the property, relying upon it…but yet again the tenant (whether wilfully or as a result of his chaotic lifestyle) failed to keep the appointment and refused to engage with either the landlord or with us, at which point we wrote underlining the consequences of failure to comply with a Court Order which was supported by a penal notice.
The client was becoming increasingly concerned not only for the safety of this particular tenant, but also for all those in his block and in the surrounding area, all too keenly aware (as Mr Henderson's article suggests) of the potentially catastrophic consequences of a failure to maintain proper gas safety. Against this background, our client instructed us to take action against the tenant for Contempt of Court, and we agreed that I would seek an order for his committal to custody. This was a Social Housing client who has always taken their social responsibilities extremely seriously, and so it was clearly only in extremis that they would sanction such a course of action, but such was the gravity of the potential risk to them from the ongoing stalemate.
We proceeded to Court (a hearing which the tenant failed to attend) and the Judge indicated that he would commit the tenant to custody for 14 days for Contempt. However, I respectfully pointed out to the Judge that this remedy still did not really resolve my client's practical problem, and I asked if he would be willing to build into his Order some provision to the effect that my client's representatives could attend the property with the police and the Court bailiff, gain access with them as they went to remove the tenant, and carry out the necessary safety inspection.
The Judge commented that it was not entirely clear whether it was "strictly within his powers" to do so in the context of sanctioning somebody for Contempt, but nonetheless he agreed that it seemed sensible and practically very necessary, and so added such a provision. The client's team attended with the police while the tenant was removed for his 14 days in custody, and they were finally able to carry out their essential safety and maintenance checks and thus to fulfil at long last their statutory duty.
This was a highly unusual situation for this particular client, and probably in the sector more widely. However I think that it illustrates the same point being made by Mr Henderson in his article - namely that in this particular case it was only the pragmatic view ultimately taken by the Judge at that final hearing which enabled our client to get into the flat to carry out the necessary inspection, without which the available legal remedies appeared to lack practical "teeth." In the event, and rather gratifyingly, the client subsequently told me that their handling of this difficult case had been singled out for favourable comment by (as it was at the time) the Audit Commission during their next review of the client's processes.
Mr Henderson in his article advocates a simple change to the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 to give express powers to landlords in situations such as this, and he advises all providers to support the campaign of www.gasaccesscampaign.org for such legislative changes. In the meantime, providers of Social Housing need to be aware of their statutory duties on matters like gas safety, and where appropriate, be prepared to take whatever action may prove necessary - however unpalatable it may appear on one level - in order to comply with them. From the experience of my client in the case discussed above, it is clear that the tough action can sometimes also be the right thing to do.
This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.