What action should a landlord take when a former tenants’ belongings are left at a Landlord's premises?
A common scenario facing many of our clients is where a tenant leaves a property but fails to remove all of their possessions. This puts landlords in a difficult situation particularly in regard to who owns these possessions, and what is the landlord to do with them?
As an important starting point, landlords should be aware that the default position is that possessions left behind at the end of a tenancy continue to belong to the tenant.
Where the possessions are obviously rubbish, the risk to the landlord in disposing of these items is small. On the other hand, if the items are valuable (such as machinery or jewellery) or are left in the property following forfeiture of a lease or enforcement of a possession order, landlords should exercise greater care. Additionally, landlords should take great care in making any assumption that the tenant has abandoned the goods.
In a scenario where goods are left behind and the landlord finds themselves in possession of these goods without consenting to it, the landlord will usually become known as an ‘involuntary bailee’. In such a scenario the landlord has the following limited duties:
1. They should not deliberately or recklessly damage or destroy the goods (with the exception of obvious rubbish);
2. If they dispose of the goods through a third-party contact of the tenant, they should make sure the third party has authority from the tenant to receive them.
Generally, if a Landlord is unable to return goods to a tenant, they are entitled to do whatever is ‘reasonable’ to rid themselves of the goods. What is considered ‘reasonable’ will depend on the circumstances of each case. For example, it may be reasonable for landlords to dispose of obviously low value goods, or to sell leftover stock that has a limited shelf-life. For the avoidance of doubt, a prudent landlord should seek legal advice on the nature of the goods and what a court may regard as reasonable.
The significance of serving notices under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977
Serving such a notice on the tenant (if locatable) is often used by landlords where they act as an involuntary bailee. The effect of service is that it imposes a time-limit on the tenant to collect the leftover goods and if they are not collected, then the Landlord has the right to sell the goods. There is some doubt as to their effectiveness in involuntary bailee scenarios, but they remain widely used for two main reasons:
1. If the tenant fails to respond to the notice it could be argued that this is evidence that they have abandoned the goods;
2. If the former tenant later claims that they hadn’t abandoned the goods, the landlord could use the service of the notice as evidence that it has acted reasonably and in accordance with its duties.