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Houses in multiple occupation
Rogers v. Islington LBC (1999) 37 EG 178
Readers will doubtless be aware of previous decisions relating to the question of the circumstances in which a "house" may properly be regarded as a "house in multiple occupation" so as to bring it within the provisions of Part XI of the Housing Act 1985 (as amended), including Barnes v Sheffield City Council (1995) 27 HLR 719.
In the latter case, which was decided in the Court of Appeal, the property in question was a small terraced house which was occupied first by five female and then by four male students, and in respect of which the local authority had served a number of notices under the relevant statutory provisions. Both the judge at first instance and the Court of Appeal held that in all the circumstances of the case the property the students occupied was "a single household" and that it was therefore not a house in multiple occupation for the purposes of the 1985 Act. In reaching this conclusion Sir Thomas Bingham, the Master of the Rolls pointed to the wide variety of different lifestyles which might be enjoyed by persons living under the same roof and referred to a number of factors which should be taken into account by the court in reaching a decision in any particular case. These might include such matters as: whether the occupiers had originally come to take up residence in the property as a single group or as individuals; the size and stability of the group; the question of how "vacancies" in the property were filled, and how rooms were allocated; and the "mode of living", which is to say, what were the arrangements for cooking, eating, washing, etc. The Master of the Rolls also said, however, that there was no "litmus test" that could be applied to all cases and that the weight which should be accorded to each of the different factors might very well vary from case to case; in effect, that each case had to be judged according to its own particular facts.
In Rogers v. Islington LBC the facts were perhaps a little unusual. The property was a three storey house, with an additional basement, situated in Islington. The owner was abroad for much of the year but visited the UK for two months or so each year and reserved a room in the house for his own use accordingly. As regards the remainder of the property, nine bedrooms were let out, one to each of nine individuals at a time, and the kitchen, bathrooms and living room were shared between all the occupants of the house.
Rent was paid by direct debit into the landlord's "house account", and included payment for services such as water, electricity, etc., as well as "basic breakfast items such as cereal, milk, bread, and tea and coffee ..." A cheque book for the account was available for designated residents to pay bills from the "house account" up to the value of £500.
The occupants were all in the 20-30 age range, "young men and women who have just completed their further education, most of them going into the professions, the civil service, banking and the city ..." and the landlord described the arrangements as having been "set up progressively as a private residential club, starting in 1973, and with continuing improvements both physical and organisational to this day ..."
When a vacancy arose, according to one of the residents, a Miss Jeavons:
The procedures was always the same: after a newspaper advertisement was placed, we would conduct a short telephone interview with all callers to assess their suitability to join the house. If it was felt that the person seemed suitable, they were then invited to view the house. As many members of the household as possible then met the prospective tenant and we informally interviewed them to find out their dislikes, personality, occupation etc as we always felt it was important to choose people who would fit in with the current members of the household.
In giving the principal judgement, Nourse LJ took account of the number of individuals occupying the property and of the fact that they came to the property "one by one, and mostly for indefinite and, necessarily, for dissimilar periods. However much weight is attached to their communal life when they got there", he went on, " I do not think that there was between the numerous and shifting occupants of the property a sufficient relationship for them to have formed a single household ..." The facts in the earlier case of Barnes v. Sheffield City Council, he went on, were near to the line but this case fell on the other side of that line and the property was indeed a house in multiple occupation for the purposes of the 1985 Act.
For a useful summary of the previous decisions on HMO's, see: Jones, G., "Living together, living apart", Solicitors' Journal, 26 January 1996.