According to figures in The Times 5.3 million (21%) homes in England and Wales are leasehold, meaning the property is not owned outright but is instead ‘leased’ from the freeholder, typically for a lengthy term. In a leasehold arrangement there will usually be a contract between leaseholder and freeholder which sets out the legal rights and responsibilities of each party. Generally these will be that the freeholder maintains the common parts of the building and the leaseholder pays maintenance fees, service charges and a portion of the buildings insurance. But what happens if there is a dispute as to those fees or some other matter?
Currently if a leasehold property owner takes the freehold owner of the building to court, a legal loophole means they could be burdened with the opposing party’s legal costs – even if the leaseholder wins. The legal bills involved can amount to tens of thousands of pounds, adding a sting in the tail to any victory.
However, after the Sunday Times launched an investigation and uncovered legal bills being levied of up to £60,000, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire MP has pledged to take action and close the loophole.
The loophole is contained in the majority of leases which typically allow freeholders to recoup their legal costs from leaseholders, even if the freeholder loses the case. There is no parallel right for leaseholders to claim costs back.
The Times reported that last year leasehold owner Richard Barclay successfully recovered £1,200 of a £10,100 service charge from the management company in respect of his central London Flat. But the victory soon turned sour when Barclay was hit with a bill for £61,300 in legal fees by Quadrant Property Management who takes care of the building.
Barclay challenged the costs and the bankruptcy court reduced these by £12,500, but tribunal has ruled that all other costs being challenged are reasonable.
Back in 2015, a similar situation arose when the leasehold owners of 30 flats in West London took the freeholder to court and won a £29,000 discount off their service bill. The managing agent’s bill for legal fees in that case amounted to more than £44,000.
According to the Times, in 2014 / 2015 A2Dominion housing association who managed the block charged its leaseholders £24,167 for legal costs. One year after, FirstPort billed leaseholders of the wider estate £20,160 for what was thought to be the same legal costs.
The Times further reports that in 2017, two leaseholders took A2Dominion to tribunal regarding £12,500 claimed through their service charges for roof repairs. Those costs could have been recouped instead through the buildings insurance policy. This time the money was refunded just before the hearing – but this time the tribunal banned the association from issuing the claimants with a legal bill.
When presented with the details of two of these cases, James Brokenshire responded by stating:
“It is the secretary of state’s intention to close the legal loopholes that allow freeholders to unjustifiably recoup legal costs from leaseholders. This will form part of our broader package of leaseholder reforms. We will do this as soon as parliamentary time allows.”
His promise is one of a number put forward by the government – it has also pledged to ban the sale of new build leasehold homes, and to cap ground rents on new leases. It believes:
“… when someone buys a house, it should feel truly their own. House buyers should not be faced with a depreciating lease or a ground rent charge for any other purpose than to pay for the privilege of living in the house they havealready bought.” (October 2018 Consultation)
The Law Commission is currently conducting three sub consultations in this area and the reforms are likely to follow their completion. These are:
James Brokenshire said he wanted a leasehold market where people were able to challenge. He showed concern for an inequality of arms that was preventing people from getting the outcomes, fairness and justice that they require.
What can I do if I have a dispute?
The first place to look if you have a dispute regarding a charge is your lease. You can only be charged for items listed in the lease so if, for example, there’s no mention of management fees or the cost of improvements, you won’t be liable. If you’re not sure whether your lease allows the charges you’re disputing, ask a solicitor to check it for you.
If you’ve received a service charge demand, check it carefully. It should state the name and address of the landlord at the top (not the managing agent, unless they are also the landlord). The exception to this is if the managing agent is a party to the lease. It should also contain a summary of your rights and obligations which can be found here.
If you believe the certain items are excessive, request a summary that shows how the charge has been worked out and what it will be spent on, with receipts. The freeholder cannot refuse to supply this – to do so can attract a £2,500 fine. If an item seems too high, get comparable quotes. This will help you demonstrate that the same services could be provided at a significant cost saving. By law the landlord must behave in a ‘reasonable’ manner with regard to its expenditure on the building. Whilst there is no duty to minimise costs, service charges must be ‘reasonable’ and where the charges relate to works or services, the works or services must be completed to a reasonable standard.
Before you consider making a challenge, speak to neighbours who are in the same boat. They may consider bringing the challenge with you.
You should not stop paying the charges. Instead, write to the management company and provide evidence such as quotations to show that the charges are not reasonable. A solicitor’s letter may carry more weight, particularly as it can set out in legal terms the landlord’s duties regarding charges.
If the management company does not agree with your challenge, mediation may be a good way to resolve the dispute. This involves sitting down with the other party and trying to find a way forward, with the help of a trained mediator. It is typically far cheaper than litigation.
Another option may be to take over the right to manage the development. Speak to a solicitor about whether this may be possible.
The final option is to apply to the first-tier tribunal (England) or the leasehold valuation tribunal (Wales) for a ruling on whether the fees are payable. There’s a £100 application fee and £200 hearing fee in England, or a £50 – £350 application fee and a hearing fee in Wales. If you are successful, you can ask the tribunal to limit the landlord’s ability to recover its legal costs through the service charge. However, they don’t have to agree to this and you may face a substantial charge.