A tenant is usually liable for council tax and utility bills during the tenancy period
A tenancy agreement will usually stipulate that a tenant is liable for council tax and utility bills during the period of a tenancy and many disputes arise where a tenant has not paid the bills.
In such circumstances, commonly, an adjudicator may be presented with a number of unpaid bills that correlate with the period of the tenancy. Nevertheless – and importantly, if the bills are in the name of the tenant then an adjudicator will, usually, determine that a landlord has not suffered a loss and no award will be made.
This is due to the fact that the contract is between, for example, the utility provider and the tenant and any loss/liability, therefore, is not the landlord’s responsibility (and would instead be pursued by the utility company against the tenant directly).
Alternatively, if a landlord presents unpaid bills that are in the name of the landlord (or the address of the property) then an adjudicator can determine that a landlord may be entitled to make a claim against the deposit.
This is due to the fact that the liability (as named on the bill) is in the name of the landlords and letting agents the property and therefore, the landlord would be facing a loss. Commonly, this occurs with Council Tax liability where a Council may not have been updated as to the tenant’s occupation of a property and a liability for the Council Tax at the address will remain with the landlord. Such a liability in the name of the landlord (or the name of a property) can be recovered against the deposit; however, the usual burden of proof principles will apply.
A landlord or the letting agent should be mindful of opening letters addressed to a tenant, even after the end of the tenancy and where a tenant has moved out of a property
Whilst a landlord may be concerned about unpaid utilities, a landlord and agent cannot open the post of the tenant without permission and a landlord or agent may be committing a criminal offence if they do so, further to the Postal Services Act 2000! In any event, therefore, a landlord should be mindful that a contract with a utility company is usually between a tenant and a utility provider and as such, it is not the landlord’s responsibility (or liability) – such correspondence, therefore, should be forwarded to the tenant at their forwarding address, unopened.
In relation to Council Tax, commonly, an adjudicator may be presented with a situation where a tenant has breached the fixed term of a tenancy agreement and a council tax liability to the landlord occurs. In such a circumstance, a landlord may be able to claim for the council tax the tenant should have paid if the tenant had kept to the fixed term.
Such a liability would only, usually, occur, however, where the property was left vacant – and a tenant cannot be held doubly liable for Council Tax on a property where a landlord or letting agent has found a new tenant to mitigate the impact of a breach of the fixed term.
The circumstances may be different, however, if the property is a property of multiple occupation or where a landlord can claim for an exemption due to an unoccupied/substantially unfurnished property. In these specific examples, it may be prudent for a landlord or letting agent to take legal advice.
John Bolton, Adjudicator