Landlords are illegally evicting tenants in greater numbers and with almost no fear of repercussions, as figures show that less than 1% of those evictions leads to a conviction.
Research by the housing charity Safer Renting found that 8,748 cases involving the practice were logged in 2022, a record high and 12% more than the 7,778 cases recorded the year before.
But at the same time, the Ministry of Justice recorded just 26 convictions of landlords in 2022 – 0.3% of the total number of cases that year.
Illegal eviction, where a landlord forcefully removes a tenant from their home without a court order or even a legal reason, is often violent and routinely sees tenants having their possessions stolen by their landlord.
Labour MP Karen Buck compared the practice to domestic abuse. “Illegal eviction often takes place out of sight, involving violence. It is the most brutal of robberies,” she said.
The Observer has heard stories of victims having life-saving medication or even their passports stolen, which leaves them unable to get homeless support from local councils.
Majid Anwar was ordered by his landlord to move out of his home while awaiting surgery. The 40-year-old came to Britain 14 years ago as a refugee after his mother and brother were murdered. He had been living in the flat for four years when the landlord informed him that he wanted a relative to stay there while they were visiting the UK on holiday.
Initially, Anwar refused to move until he could find himself a new place to live, but, he said, he experienced weeks of harassment from the landlord.
In September, while Anwar was at an appointment with his surgeon, the landlord changed the locks and, alleges Anwar, took all his possessions, including his medication and inhaler.
Anwar spent five days camped outside the flat waiting for the landlord to answer the phone before he was allowed back in to collect his possessions. He said he contacted the police numerous times, but was wrongly informed that it was a civil matter and told to stop calling as he was “blocking the line”.
“My landlord was so sure the law wouldn’t protect me,” he said. “And that is what happened.”
Anwar has been left permanently homeless and is now on antidepressants, having started to suffer panic attacks since the illegal eviction.
The government does not formally collect data on the total number of illegal evictions, which has forced Safer Renting to compile the statistics by counting the number of cases logged by charities that support victims of the practice, meaning the figures are likely to be an underestimate.
The cases documented by Safer Renting and convictions recorded by the Ministry of Justice could potentially include many offences by the same landlord.
Illegal eviction is often made worse because council-employed tenancy relation officers, whose job it is to police the practice, were heavily cut back during the austerity era. Half the boroughs in London either do not employ, or would not say if they employ, any staff who are able to take action over an illegal eviction.
And while police have a duty to intervene, cases are often wrongly dismissed as civil matters.
In August, the Metropolitan police ordered its officers to start arresting landlords who illegally evict tenants after concerns that officers were showing bias and even aiding illegal evictions in some cases.
The government has already pledged to place a statutory duty on local councils to prosecute cases of illegal eviction and harassment as part of its new renters’ reform bill.
But Safer Renting is worried about this provision remaining in the bill after the promised end of no fault evictions was delayed in the proposed legislation until the completion of potentially lengthy reforms to the judicial system.
The charity also wants the government to provide more resources for local authority tenancy relations officers and has called for higher financial penalties for landlords.
“If the bill is watered down and if it isn’t backed up with other measures, the situation risks getting worse,” said Roz Spencer, director of Safer Renting.
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Illegal eviction is a criminal offence and the government is clear it will not be tolerated.
“Through our renters’ [reform] bill, we are placing a duty on councils to protect tenants against landlords who illegally evict and harass them. We are also giving them new powers to issue fines to landlords of up to £30,000 as an alternative to prosecution.”