As a property owner, it can be frustrating when nuisance neighbours move into a neighbouring property. Unfortunately, we find that many people who contact us about nuisance neighbours are complaining about short term tenants rather than property owners.
Of course, the majority of tenants are considerate and law abiding, but unfortunately sometimes this is not the case. Clients often ask us whether landlords are responsible for their tenants’ actions. As we will see below, unfortunately, a landlord cannot generally be held responsible for the actions of their tenants. The general exception to this is where the landlord has authorised the breach.
If your neighbour does something lawfully on their own land, but which interferes with your ability to enjoy their land, you may have a claim in nuisance. Therefore, if your neighbours’ five dogs consistently bark through the night, you may be able to bring a claim. This is the case whether they own the property or are tenants.
However, short term tenants sometimes don’t stay around for very long. Therefore, it may seem more beneficial to bring a claim against the landlord (someone who is likely to be around for longer, have more money and could evict the tenant if necessary). But can you do this?
Claims against landlords for the tenants’ nuisance
The court has looked at this in two major cases: Smith v Scott and Others  1 Ch 314 and Mowan v Wandsworth LBC  EWCA Civ 357.
Smith v Scott
Smith v Scott concerned a claim brought by property owner against a problem tenant and the council landlord. In brief, the council owned the property next door to the claimant and placed troublesome tenants there. The tenants then went on to cause a nuisance to the claimant. The council knew the tenants were troublesome, but did not authorise the nuisance. Mr Smith claimed that the council owed him a duty of care in selecting its tenants and so should be held liable for the acts of nuisance.
In the High Court, Vice Chancellor Sir John Pennycuick dismissed the claim. He held that the council did not owe a duty of care to neighbours when placing tenants. Further, he noted that a nuisance claim is a personal remedy that could only properly be directed against the person actually causing the nuisance (in this case, the tenants). The council could not be held liable for the tenant’s nuisance unless they had authorised it. To quote the Vice Chancellor:
“In general, a landlord is not liable for nuisance committed by his tenant, but to this rule there is… one recognised exception, namely, that the landlord is liable if he has authorised his tenant to commit the nuisance… In the present case, the corporation let No. 25, Walpole Road to the Scotts as a dwelling house on conditions of tenancy which expressly prohibited the committing of a nuisance, and, notwithstanding that the corporation knew the Scotts were likely to cause a nuisance, I do not think it is legitimate to say that the corporation impliedly authorised the nuisance.”
Mowan v Wandsworth LBC
The second case concerned a claim by a council tenant against Wandsworth Borough Council for the failure to deal with a fellow tenant who was causing the claimant a nuisance. The claimant lost at first instance and then again on appeal. The Court of Appeal approved the ratio of Sir John Pennycuick VC in Smith v Scott. The court reaffirmed that a landlord could only be held liable for the nuisance caused by a tenant where it had actually authorised the nuisance; simply knowing about the nuisance and taking no steps to stop it was not enough to bring a claim against the landlord.
The situation may be different if the property in question is a leasehold property (e.g. a flat in a block). Here, the flat owner is likely to have agreed in his long lease not to cause a nuisance or annoyance. Therefore, if the flat owner lets out the flat to short term tenants who cause a nuisance, the flat owner may be in breach of the long lease. At that point, the building owner may have a claim against the flat owner. This would entirely depend upon the terms of the lease, however.