Whether you have a legal, tax, insurance, management or land issue, Farmers Weekly’s Business Clinic experts can help. Here, Russell Reeves at Thrings offers advice on how to deal with messy former tenants and a claim of property damage by animals.
Q: My elderly mother owns a small family farm in Cumbria. We rent the farm out to tenant farmers, who have taken responsibility of all the animals. My mother lives in the cottage next door.
There is also a barn conversion on the land belonging to me and my siblings, which has been rented to long-term tenants.
These people have since left, leaving the house in a terrible state, of which we have photographic evidence, and for which we are trying negotiate the returning of a reduced deposit, which appears to be very similar to the amount of money it’s taken to de-clutter and clean the house.
We have since received notification by email from the departing tenants, stating that in May some of the farm animals damaged their car. The email included a repair estimate for £840 plus VAT and threatened small claims action if we did not pay this within 30 days.
As far as I am aware, we were not notified of this straightaway. In addition to this, we have had a similar situation with a householder in the same vicinity also complaining of animals damaging their car. Who is liable? What we should do?
A: Several issues here need to be considered separately.
Withholding the deposit
You have not said whether the vacating tenants have a written tenancy agreement. If yes, it is likely to state how the property should be left at the end of the tenancy. For example, some tenancies require tenants to carry out redecoration at certain times throughout the tenancy.
It is important that you comply with any terms governing what you must do upon the tenants vacating the property. If you don’t, you may be in breach of the agreement.
If there is no written agreement it is likely to be an implied term of the tenancy that the vacating tenants should leave the property in a reasonable condition, having regard to the state of the property at the beginning of the tenancy and to the duration of the tenancy.
You mention you were required to de-clutter and clean the property. Assuming it was clutter-free and clean at the beginning of the tenancy, you are entitled to deduct any reasonable costs of de-cluttering and cleaning from the deposit.
Taking photographic evidence is also sensible. Ensure you also retain invoices and receipts as these will provide evidence of the costs you have incurred during the cleaning process.
If you do the work yourself, make a note of what you have done and the hours you have spent on it. You may also need this if the vacating tenants challenge you for withholding the deposit (or part of it).
Liability for damage caused by animals
In order to provide you with comprehensive advice, I would need more information from the vacating tenants, specifically on what damage is alleged to have been caused, by what farm animals, when, where and how.
Assuming the damage is said to have been caused by an escaping animal which has trespassed onto the tenanted land associated with the barn, the vacating tenants have a potential claim against either the owner of the animals (I assume this to be your mother) or the keepers (the farm tenants) if they have been negligent (for example, by not repairing a fence they were required to maintain). Alternatively, the keepers may be strictly liable under the Animals Act 1971.
The real question is who is to blame for the damage. If the tenant issues court proceedings against your mother, she can make an adjoined claim against the farm tenants.
The burden of proving any damage rests with the vacating tenants, and it will be up to them to prove it was more likely than not that the animals actually caused the damage and the costs of that damage.
If a claim is made against your mother, she will then have the burden of proving that the blame lies with the farm tenants (if that is so).
Threat of proceedings
The vacating tenants have threatened to issue proceedings within 30 days. On the basis they have only sent you an email and the estimate, and you have no further detail, if they do issue proceedings this would appear to be a breach of the Civil Procedure Rules, which require the vacating tenants to set out the concise details of the claim.
In my view, they have not done that. I recommend you ask the vacating tenants to send you evidence of the cause of the damage and details of any costs incurred.
Given the number of issues in this matter, it is important you consider any potential liability in greater detail with a legal specialist before proceeding.
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