Bailment - Landlords Left In The Lurch
What Happens When A Tenant Leaves Their Possessions?
Bailment is probably an unfamiliar and archaic word to most. However, it refers to a surprisingly common legal relationship whereby one person is in possession of goods that belong to another. This often happens where someone has left something to be repaired and does not collect it, such as shoes at the local cobblers or even their car at a garage (often as they cannot afford to pay the bill).
Another area in which we frequently see this arise is in relation to landlords and tenants. There seems to be a misconception that, if a tenant abandons a property or vacates and leaves possessions behind, the landlord has the right to dispose of these possessions as he thinks fit. This can be especially tempting if the tenant owes the landlord money and there are valuable goods left behind which could be sold to allow the landlord to recoup some of these losses.
Once a landlord has validly retaken possession of his property, if any goods remain, the landlord becomes an ‘involuntarily bailee’ of those goods. This imposes a legal obligation on the landlord to safeguard those goods and ensure that they are not lost, damaged or destroyed. It is unlawful for the landlord to dispose of items that belong to the tenant without first following the proper procedures under section 2(2) of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 (the Act). If the correct procedures are not followed, court proceedings could be issued by the tenant and the landlord could be ordered;
- to deliver up the goods (i.e. give them back to the tenant); and/or
- to pay damages for any consequential loss or damage.
On some occasions, the tenant may even leave behind their animals. Animals are treated by the law as possessions of the tenant and the same obligations and duties therefore apply. However, the onus on the landlord is obviously greater as they can’t simply be placed in storage but will need to be fed, watered and cared for.
If a landlord finds himself in a situation whereby they are an involuntary bailee, he should first take an inventory and photographs (if possible) of any possessions left in the property.
The goods can be removed from the property and stored elsewhere, provided this is somewhere safe and secure. On a practical note, this will allow the landlord to re-let the property.
In order to potentially avoid liability, once a tenant has left the property (and left behind possessions), the landlord should serve a notice as prescribed in the Act. If the tenant fails to collect the goods as set out in the Notice, the landlord may then dispose of or sell the goods although there are further strict conditions set out in the Act with which he needs to comply in order to avoid a potential claim, including retaining the proceeds of sale for the benefit of the tenant.
A prudent Landlord will serve notice on the Tenant, even if there is provision in the tenancy agreement which specifically provides that the Landlord can treat any possessions left behind as abandoned.
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