How to get Bianca and Tiffany out of your property

Ian Hunter on the rights of tenants and landlords in 'EastEnders'
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The Independent Online
As addicts of BBC's EastEnders series will know, Bianca is not having an easy time of it. She believes that her boyfriend Ricky is attempting a reconciliation with his wife Sam. Having thrown Ricky out of their shared flat, incinerating his belongings in the process, she probably believed the worst was over.

The problem is that the flat that she and Ricky were renting is owned by Sam's brother Phil, who - having been persistently pestered by Sam - has put Bianca and her squatting friend Tiffany, out on the pavement.

Tenants' rights vary depending on the type of agreement they have reached with their landlords. Enforcing those rights against an aggressive Phil Mitchell is another issue.

Most residential tenants' rights are now governed by the Housing Act 1988. This Act was ushered in to encourage more private landlords into the rental market. The easiest route by which Phil could legally have ensured a swift repossession of his flat was by entering into an assured shorthold tenancy.

This tenancy provides the landlord with the right to terminate the lease on two months' notice at any time after the expiry of the first four months of the lease. As Ricky and Bianca had been in the flat for more than four months, Phil could have asked them to quit on two months' notice.

However, certain procedures have to be followed to ensure that the lessee is given assured shorthold status. This includes serving on the tenants - before the start of the lease - a notice in the prescribed form, which sets out the limited nature of the tenants' rights.

If the correct procedures are not followed, or the landlord and tenant merely reach a verbal understanding, the tenant gains enhanced protection against eviction. The arrangement is then known as an assured tenancy. The effect of that is that a landlord can only regain possession of the property at the end of the lease if he has successfully proved to the court that it should exercise its discretion in his favour. This compares unfavourably with the assured shorthold tenancy, where the landlord is entitled to possession as of right.

If Bianca and Ricky had been granted an assured tenancy, Phil could have had quite a struggle on his hands. Bianca is unemployed and therefore eligible for legal aid - so with a determined solicitor she could have denied Phil legal access to the property for some time.

In order for the tenants to retain protection against eviction on the expiry of the lease, in the absence of a valid court order, they must continue to live in the property. The tenants should also continue to abide by the terms of the lease, such as paying the rent regularly and carrying out repairs for which they are responsible.

The failure to do so will strengthen the landlord's right to repossession, although it is unlikely a court will order an eviction if the rent is only slightly in arrears.

Even if the landlord is not granted repossession, he can still send the bailiffs to the premises to recover any rent arrears. This can take place on any day except Sunday - but only during the hours of daylight.

The landlord can seize anything of value belonging to the tenant in order to settle the rent arrears. There is one important qualification: he cannot seize possessions such as bedding or clothes, nor can he seize an innocent third party's property. Force may not be used by the landlord to gain entry.

Likewise force should not be used to evict squatters. According to Joy Bailey, a solicitor with Exeter law firm Anstey Sargent and Probert, "The law governing squatters does have teeth, but if the correct procedures are not followed it is likely to bite back."

If the squatters do not have permission to be there, the procedure should be swift. But Phil may have a problem in proving Tiff and Bianca did not have a right to be there if he was acquiescing in the arrangement. If he has accepted rent the two would have strong grounds for saying they are assured tenants.

A court hearing involving squatters will usually be held within a few days. If the court is satisfied the entry was unlawful it will issue an immediate warrant for possession to the court bailiffs. The bailiffs will enforce the judgment as soon as possible.

Landlords should in all cases avoid taking the law into their own hands, whether the occupants are unwanted tenants or squatters. The landlord could end up paying damages to the occupants and may be denied possession by a court order while matters are resolved. If anyone is injured, the landlord could even end up with a criminal record - although that is unlikely to frighten the Mitchell brothers.

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