Police, prosecutors and local authorities failing to uphold unlawful eviction laws
Criminal offences relating to unlawful eviction – that have existed for half a century – are not being upheld, according to new findings.
Writing for the SCOLAG Journal, Shaun McPhee presents the preliminary findings of research on enforcement in the Scottish private rented sector, in particular on unlawful eviction and harassment of tenants.
Police Scotland failed to confirm the number of complaints made regarding unlawful conviction or harassment by private sector landlords in the five years to date.
Mr McPhee’s request for this information was refused on the basis the information is not stored in a structured format.
He writes: “Unlawful eviction deprives people of their homes, exacerbates the homelessness crisis, and undoubtedly results in huge cost to the taxpayer in temporary accommodation and other support. Police Scotland must demonstrate that it takes the crime of unlawful eviction seriously – starting with properly recording and monitoring complaints.”
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) received 153 reports of unlawful eviction – an average of 31 per year – in the year to March 2018.
“Beyond the number of reports, matters become less clear. COPFS refused to disclose exact figures where the number is less than five, or where disclosure would allow for calculation of another figure which is less than five, as this may allow for the identification of individuals involved.
“As a result, I can conclude only that COPFS proceeded against between 56 and 59 people in the five years to 31 March 2018, being an average of around 11 per year. Such proceedings resulted in a minimum of three and a maximum of 12 convictions, being a conviction rate of between 5% and 21%.”
The average conviction rate in Scotland is around 86%. For rape and attempted rape, the rate is 39% and 92% for shoplifting.
“That the conviction rate for unlawful eviction falls below that of notoriously challenging sexual offences cases, is cause for serious concern,” Mr McPhee writes.
He also highlights local authorities’ “serious dereliction” of their statutory duty to aid those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, including providing both temporary and permanent accommodation. Local authorities are also the principal regulator of private sector landlords operating within their jurisdiction.
Of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, one ignored Mr McPhee’s request for data on the issue, 27 responded to most questions while four refused to provide any information for cost reasons.
“The quality of data disclosed was near universally poor. The largest group of councils – 13, or 40% – held no information relating to complaints of unlawful eviction or harassment. Virtually all others disclosed incomplete or clearly erroneous data. Some were able to disclose information for some years but not others, without explanation or apparent logic.”
Local authorities can refer cases directly to COPFS, but the figures indicate that this happens an average of once per year. They can also review a landlord’s registration at any time.
“Of those consulted, only one local authority – Highland Council – reported having referred cases for prosecution.”
Mr McPhee concludes that “urgent action” is necessary to address the problem.
“That does not require further legislation or regulation – current provisions are perfectly good – it simply requires authorities to act responsibly, and to uphold the law.”