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Legal Talk: How to Get Away with Rent Strikes

The NUS instructed Bindmans LLP to develop the guidance below in May 2016. Making yourself aware of the general guidance above is a good starting point for students thinking of going on rent strike, but we still urge students and organisers to seek specific legal advice as they see fit.

Please note that the following guidance only applies to England and Wales.

A rent strike, or withholding rent, has no basis in law. There is no legal right to withhold rent even when a landlord has failed to carry out repairs or when the rent is very high or unaffordable. At times it can be a powerful tactic to try and encourage change but it should be remembered that withholding rent can be a risky one. As rent is not paid rent arrears build up putting tenants at risk of losing their homes, possession proceedings and eviction. A rent strike is a political action and can be a way to highlight the issue and try and achieve change. However there are potentially very serious consequences:

Possession proceedings

It can be surprisingly easy and relatively quick for a landlord to gain possession where there is unpaid rent. For an assured tenant, if a landlord is able to prove at least 8 weeks arrears, from when the notice of possession is served and the date of hearing the court must make an outright possession order.

A landlord does not need to prove any particular ground, simply that there are rent arrears. There would be no defence to argue that the rent is “unreasonably high” or prohibitive. A rent strike would not be a defence to a possession claim. The court would also order the tenant to pay legal costs and court fees which can add to the debt.

County Court Judgment or ‘money judgment’

A landlord can bring court proceedings for the unpaid rent. Rather than a claim for possession or even alongside one a landlord can issue a claim for a County Court Judgment online for the unpaid rent. Enforcement of the court order can then follow and allows a landlord to take a range of options—sending bailiffs, trying to seize funds from a bank account or taking sums from any employer.

The consequences of rent arrears and/or a county court judgment can have longer term implications as follows:

References

It is common for landlords to seek references before agreeing to let a property to a prospective tenant. As part of checking whether or not to rent landlords can ask for details of rent payments to previous landlords. If your rent payment history and rent has been withheld a potential landlord can be less likely to consider you are a tenant in future.

Credit reference check

A County Court Judgment for rent arrears is information that will be linked to you through credit reference agencies. It can have an impact for a number of years and will not be avoided simply because the debt arose through a rent strike. Details of past debt and financial problems will be stored by credit reference agencies and checked by banks, financial institutions and even some employers.

This may be linked to you for many years and extend far beyond your time at University. A credit reference check can make it more difficult to obtain financial services later in life. A judgment because of a rent strike may stop you gaining a loan or mortgage.

Impact on career and certain types of employment

A county court judgment against you for rent arrears is something that appears as part of your credit history. Certain jobs require you to disclose information about civil judgments and debts. For example, legal regulators such as the Law Society ask about Court Judgments, accountancy regulators check you are someone with ‘good standing’. Judgments that arise because of rent strike may impact in these areas. It is common for employers to check credit reference history for certain types of roles, for example those working in finance can be checked for past debt and credit problems. Employers will not know from such checks that credit problems arose because of a rent strike. All they will see is that there was a judgment or debt.

Immigration/visa

The Home Office when extending visas frequently asks whether there is a civil Judgment outstanding. If you need to apply to extend a visa or vary your visa status the presence of a civil Judgment can have implications for your visa application.

Disrepair? Can I withhold rent?

There is no legal right to withhold rent even when a landlord has failed to carry out repairs. Tenants who do not pay the rent run the risk of a landlord issuing possession proceedings and try to evict them. It can be possible to put aside rent money in order to carry out repairs but the circumstances in which this can take place are limited and tenants must comply with a clear sequence of events.

It is generally inadvisable for tenants to withhold rent because of disrepair and if rent is withheld it should be put aside. If engaging in a rent strike put the money aside into a separate account and weigh up the potential implications. Go in with your eyes open and be aware of the risks and real dangers.

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The only reason why no one was evicted (or saw any of the above things happen to them) in any of the rent strikes that have happened in university accommodation in the last few years has little to do with law: it has everything to do with the political strength of their campaign, the number of students on strike and the extent to which strikers had a hold on the university's image. No uni wants to get bad press after evicting struggling students.

We know it’s a risky tactic, and it’s worth knowing the possible consequences of such a campaign. You want to be ready for the worst. But we have incredibly strong political arguments and the potential to build a huge movement that goes with it. Hence, this chapter is not meant to discourage you in any way, merely to inform you.