Unlawfully Evicted Evangelical Church Wins Damages

WR Solicitor & Director Jonathan Leach

Evicting unwanted tenants can be a costly and laborious process, but landlords who give in to the temptation to take unlawful shortcuts risk being hit hard in the pocket. That was certainly so in a recent case, reviewed by Jonathan Leach, concerning an evangelical church which was unceremoniously excluded from its premises without a court order.

The property occupied by the church as a place of worship was in an area that had been earmarked for a major regeneration project. It had been in residence for about 10 years when its landlord’s agents took possession of the property. The church took action and swiftly obtained an emergency injunction restoring it to possession. It subsequently launched proceedings against the landlord seeking, amongst other things, damages for unlawful eviction.

In upholding the church’s claim, a judge found that it was a tenant of the property, as opposed to a licensee. Its tenancy was for business purposes and was protected under Part II of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954.It was therefore entitled to remain in possession of the property until such time as the tenancy was lawfully determined.

The judge had no doubt that, in proceeding with the unlawful eviction, the landlord and its agents took a calculated risk with a view to avoiding the time and expense of court proceedings. The landlord also wanted to avoid spending more management time on further attempts to negotiate the termination of the church’s lease.

Those who carried out the eviction were not regulated bailiffs or enforcement officers and the landlord was at least in part motivated by profit. It was aware that the church had been in occupation for some years and that the eviction was likely to be particularly sensitive given the property’s use as a place of worship.

The judge noted that the landlord was not without mitigation: amongst other things, the church had not produced a document confirming its status as a tenant prior to the eviction. The landlord had also, without success, offered the church a short-term lease of the property. The church’s claim that the landlord’s agents had taken a substantial sum of money from the premises was rejected.

The landlord was nevertheless ordered to pay the church a total of £8,600 in damages, including £6,250 in exemplary damages. It was also ordered to pay, on the punitive indemnity basis, the legal costs incurred by the church in recovering possession of the property.

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