UK: Tenant's Goods: Can I Chuck Them Out?

Last Updated: 23 May 2014
Article by Anna Ralston

Summary and implications

The scenarios are easy to imagine:

  • It is mid-way through the term but the tenant has disappeared.
  • The tenant has been in persistent breach of its lease and the landlord has forfeited the lease.
  • The term has ended and the tenant has moved out.

The tenant has left behind a number of items. What next? Can the landlord simply chuck them out? In short, the answer is no. This article will look at:

  • the landlord's responsibilities for the goods;
  • the liabilities the landlord can face for disposing of the tenant's property without following the proper procedures; and
  • practical guidance for getting the premises back.  

What has been left behind?

The first thing the landlord should establish is exactly what items have been left behind. Are they chattels or fixtures? The law relating to fixtures and chattels is complex and a landlord should always seek specific legal advice.

If the items are fixtures, they form part of the premises. As such, they belong to the landlord and the landlord is free to deal (and dispose) as the landlord sees fit.

If the items are chattels, they belong to the tenant unless the landlord can show that they have been abandoned. Therefore, the landlord must be cautious before disposing of them.

Have the items been abandoned by the tenant? Merely losing goods or leaving them behind is not sufficient to establish the legal threshold for abandonment. A prudent landlord is better to assume that the chattels have not been abandoned.

Chuck it out anyway? The landlord's liability

Given that the landlord does not own the items simply because the tenant has left them behind, it is not surprising that there are adverse consequences for disposing of something that the landlord does not own.

The landlord will be an involuntary bailee of the tenant's items. This means that the landlord must:

  • not deliberately or recklessly damage or destroy the items; and
  • check the authority of any third party to whom the landlord is passing the items (with the intention that the third party will pass the items to the tenant).

It is unlawful for the landlord to dispose of (which is akin to destroying) 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). The landlord could be liable for:

  • an order for delivery of the goods, and for payment of any consequential damages;
  • an order for delivery of the goods (or to pay damages to the value of the goods and consequential damages); or
  • damages.

This is in addition to the legal costs and management time that may have to be spent dealing with queries raised by the tenant about the tenant's property.

Giving the tenant notice under the Act

If the tenant has vacated the premises, leaving behind a number of its chattels in situ, the landlord should serve a notice under the Act (a Notice).

Serving a Notice is advantageous for two reasons. First, it may help the landlord to establish that the items have been legally abandoned so that the landlord is free to dispose of them. This may be beneficial if the cost of storing or selling the items outweighs their value.

Second, a Notice will entitle the landlord to sell the items that have been left behind. The Notice must:

  • state where the goods are kept;
  • state when and where the sale will take place (if the goods are to be sold);
  • state that any sale and storage costs will be retained from the sale proceeds;
  • state that the landlord will not be liable for any consequential losses suffered by the tenant or any third party;
  • attach a schedule of the goods that remain on the premises; and
  • be sent to the former tenant and attached to the premises where it can be seen.

A prudent landlord should ensure that a Notice is given to the tenant even if the lease specifically provides that a landlord can treat any items left behind as abandoned and dispose of them after, for example, 14 days. This is particularly important where the items left behind are numerous or valuable. The landlord may take a commercial decision not to be as cautious where the lease contains such provision and the items left behind are of a lower value.

The landlord should obtain the proper price for any items sold. The proceeds of sale should be kept for the benefit of the tenant, for some time. Precise guidance about how long the proceeds should be kept is difficult and should be judged by reference to the amount of money involved and the circumstances of the particular case.

Practical hints for landlords

  1. The more valuable the items, the greater the risk to the landlord that the tenant may bring a claim. Bear this in mind when deciding what steps to take. 
  2. Take an inventory of the items that remain at the premises as soon as it is evident that the tenant has vacated.
  3. Two people should inspect the goods and make the inventory to minimise the ability of the tenant to dispute what items were left behind.
  4. The inventory should be as detailed as possible (for example, take photographs and note the serial numbers of any items).
  5. Document all action taken in case evidence is required to later defend a claim from the tenant, or to help to establish that the goods have been abandoned.
  6. If a third party claims the items, ask them to provide written evidence of their ownership before releasing the goods.
  7. If a third party claims the items on behalf of the owner, check that they have authority (and see written evidence of this) before releasing the goods.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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