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Council not bound by promise to tenant

LAW REPORT v 21 November 1995
Southwark London Borough Council v Logan; Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Neill and Lord Justice Auld) 31 October 1995

A housing authority was not bound to honour its written promise to a tenant that, having left her previous home because of racial harassment, she would not be evicted from the property in which she was currently squatting unless and until she had been offered a suitable alternative.

The authority's undertaking did not form the basis of a binding contract, and neither it nor the authority's express policy of giving precedence to victims of racial harassment gave rise to an estoppel. The tenant thus had no right to occupy the premises in which she was squatting and the authority was entitled to evict her.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Mrs Yvette Logan's appeal from Judge Levy QC, sitting in Central London County Court on 5 August 1994, who (i) made an order for possession of 21 Benwick Close, Rotherhithe, London, in favour of Southwark London Borough Council, and (ii) dismissed Mrs Logan's counterclaim to be a secure tenant of that property.

Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel (who did not appear below) (Winston & Co) for Mrs Logan; Nicholas K. Nicol (Clive Grace, Southwark) for the council.

Lord Justice Neill said that from 1975 to 1985 Mrs Logan and her family lived in a two-bedroom council flat at 18 Hythe House in Southwark, where they were subjected to serious racial harassment. In 1979 she was placed on the register for a transfer on the basis the flat was overcrowded.

In 1985 the council adopted a policy on racial harassment which provided that victims should be transferred to accommodation of an equal or higher standard.

In December 1985 Mrs Logan and her family moved into 21 Benwich Close, which was part of a new development by the Greater London Council, half of which had been allocated to Southwark. The council tried to get Mrs Logan to leave because another family had been offered the house but she would not go. In May 1986 the council obtained a possession order, but did not enforce it at that stage.

On 28 August 1986 the Rotherhithe district housing manager, Mrs V. Ross, wrote her the letter on which her present claim was based. It said:

You are registered as a family requiring five-bedroom accommodation and are of the highest priority because of the racial harassment experienced by you and members of your family at 18 Hythe House . . . I promise that the Court Order obtained in May 1986 against you will not be enforced unless it is proved that you have been offered a suitable place and have refused it for no good reason.

In April 1989 Mrs Logan was told that approval would be sought from the housing committee for her to be offered the tenancy of the house but a recommendation to that effect was not followed through, nor was it accepted by the committee in April 1990. In January 1991 a notice to quit was served. After various delays, the case came before the judge in July 1994.

It was argued (a) that the letter of 28 August 1986 constituted a contract between the council and Mrs Logan under which she became entitled to remain at 21 Benwick Close until offered suitable alternative accommodation; or (b) that the council was estopped from disputing her right to remain and from bringing possession proceedings.

In his Lordship's judgment, the case in contract was hopeless. No term was agreed as to payment, which would have been an essential term of any contract; and none of the matters set out as constituting consideration was sufficient.

As for estoppel, it seemed abundantly clear that Mrs Logan had terminated her tenancy of 18 Hythe House of her own initiative and in so doing had not suffered a detriment in reliance upon the assurance given in the letter of 28 August 1986. She had no intention of moving back; and even if the tenancy of 18 Hythe House was not formally terminated until 1988, that termination could not in the circumstances be regarded as a detriment suffered by Mrs Logan. She had effectively severed her connection with Hythe House at the end of 1985.

Looking at the case as a whole, his Lordship concluded it would not be right to set aside the order for possession. The council had stayed its hand as long as it could because of Mrs Logan's difficulties; but it also had responsibilities to others who sought its assistance.

Lord Justice Auld agreed.

Paul Magrath, Barrister