“No letting to single mums, plumbers or pet owners” – discrimination against potential tenants?

Sarah Woolnough

Senior Associate

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January 12, 2017

Categories Landlord and TenantProperty Disputes

I read with interest the articles in the KM Online and The Daily Mail dated 6 January 2017 and The Sun dated 7 January 2017 about Fergus Wilson’s “11 point letting criteria” which includes the above and in addition excludes domestic violence victims, zero hours workers, low income workers, people on benefits, single adults, tenants with children under 18, smokers and only accepts tenants with a rent guarantee. For his part, Mr Wilson is a Kent property tycoon with a large portfolio of properties and a wealth of letting experience.  He is also a multi-millionaire and often in the press for his dealings with his rental properties in his rather unique manner. Despite the inflammatory headline, he actually does not let to single fathers either (is that really any better?!) surely that still screams discrimination?

Having read the articles in full i.e. looking beyond the headlines, the question I asked myself was, is what he is doing legal? On the face of it surely the answer has to be an emphatic no, followed by a claim by a disgruntled potential tenant who has been told “no letting”?  With my non-legal head on, morally speaking it probably is wrong and certainly got my hackles rising, but is it LEGAL?  Where do you start to find out the answer?

The starting position is found under the Equality Act 2010 which sets out the various heads of discrimination such as disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, sex, race, sexual orientation or religion/belief and the Act calls these “protected characteristics”.    The Act stipulates that you must not be treated unfairly on the basis of any of the protected characteristics.  If you are, then you may bring a civil claim against the person who discriminated against you.

What constitutes unfair treatment?  Well, things like offering you a property on worse or less favourable terms, evicting you, intimidating you, refusing to let a property to you, treating you badly or less favourably than someone else.  It can even be where you are punished for complaining about discrimination or where you have helped someone else complain.  If any of these are because of one of the protected characteristics, this is classed as discrimination.

Discrimination can be direct or indirect.  Direct discrimination is where you are treated differently because of you are or who the person thinks you are.  Indirect discrimination is where a policy or rule is applied that puts you or others like you at a disadvantage compared to others.

The Act covers various types of accommodation which includes not only residential letting accommodation but also sheltered housing, mobile homes, caravan sites, business premises such as shops and pubs and agricultural land.

So we are back to my original question.  Is it LEGAL? By advertising his criteria and putting it to his letting agent as a “checklist process” for potential tenants, I believe that Mr Wilson leaves himself open for a complaint about discrimination but it is my opinion that none of Mr Wilson’s criteria breach the Equality Act 2010.  Therefore, shocking as it may be, landlords are able to set certain criteria for their lettings provided they stay within the rules.

On that note, a landlord is allowed to discriminate against a potential tenant if there is a law which allows it.  Take for example the Immigration Act 2014 and the new right to rent checks that landlords must carry out.  If the potential tenant does not have the right to rent in the UK then the landlord may refuse to offer them a tenancy.  Whilst this would ordinarily give rise to discrimination based on their race, there is a specific law that means it is not discrimination.

My parting shot therefore has to be that landlords can happily set their own “letting criteria” such as Mr Wilson has done but they just need to tread carefully when it comes to the protected characteristics.  Provided they are inside of those rules then there can be no valid claim for discrimination.  After all, a rental property is a form of income for landlords (and in some cases their main business) and they do need to be allowed to protect that and themselves.  Whilst the complaints are many relating to “rogue” landlords, equally, there are many unscrupulous tenants out there who use the law to take advantage of landlords knowing how long it takes to get possession where for example rents are not paid – therefore why shouldn’t a landlord have his own rules?

For advice about letting residential property, contact Sarah Woolnough on 01227 763939 or email slw@furleypage.co.uk