No Compensation for Tenants of Damp Properties – Lee v Leeds City Council; Ratcliffe v Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council
Families who say their lives have been blighted by mould and damp in their council homes today failed in a test case compensation bid. Three Appeal Court judges ruled that local authorities were not obliged to put right design defects in the families’ homes ‘even though they made them ‘prejudicial to human health’.
Ruth Lee, who lives with her two young sons in Leeds, and Dawn Ratcliffe, who has three asthmatic children, of Tividale, Oldbury, West Midlands, had both argued their fundamental human rights had been violated. Their lawyers claimed the condensation, damp and mould which infests their homes amounted to a breach of their right to respect for their private and family lives under the Human Rights Act. But London’s Appeal Court ruled that, although Leeds City Council and Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council were duty-bound to keep the properties in structural repair, that did not extend to putting right the design defects at the root of the condensation problem.
Ruth Lee has lived in the property since 1995. Experts who inspected the interior reported that its state was so bad as to be ‘prejudicial to human health’ and a ‘statutory nuisance’. The Ratcliffe family moved into their property in 1993. Mrs Ratcliffe’s children, Stuart, seven, Robert, 13, and Natasha, 11, all suffer from asthma and she says their condition has been greatly worsened by the state of their home.
Sandwell Council did not dispute that the condition of the property made it prejudicial to human health. But Lord Justice Chadwick, sitting with Lord Justice Tuckey and Sir Murray Stuart-Smith, said the terms of the tenancy agreements did not make the councils liable to put right design defects. Nor could it be said that, in these cases, the councils failure to do so amounted to a breach of the families’ human rights, he ruled. Although the councils were obliged under the leases to keep the properties in structural repair, the judge said: “The works required to remedy the design defects are not works of repair”.
Mr Kim Lewison, QC for the families, earlier told the judges that, had they been private tenants, they could have asked the councils to serve ‘nuisance abatement’ notices on their landlords. But the councils could not serve abatement notices on themselves, so local authority tenants were obliged to take matters into their own hands and take their cases to court, he said. He argued unsuccessfully that the Human Rights Act put the councils under an ‘independent statutory duty’ to put right the defects in the families’ homes.