Warning to joint tenants: your tenancy can be terminated by one tenant acting alone

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Sims v Dacorum Borough Council [2014] UKSC 63

It is a well-founded principle of common law that a periodic joint tenancy, i.e. where there was two or more joint tenants, can be terminated by a notice to quit served by only one of them. This principle however recently challenged by a tenant in the Supreme Court.

Mr Sims and his wife were joint tenants under a weekly tenancy of a house let by the local authority.  The pair’s marriage broke down and Mrs Sims served a notice to quit on the local authority to terminate the tenancy.

Mr Sims did not want to terminate the tenancy and asked the local authority to transfer it into his name alone. The local authority refused and sought an order for possession from the court. Mr Sims claimed that a possession order would infringe his human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and the First Protocol thereto; namely his right to respect for his private and family life and the right to peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.

A seven member (which in itself is rather unusual) Supreme Court unanimously rejected Mr Sims’ argument on the basis that the express provisions of the tenancy, which Mr Sims had agreed to by signing, permitted the tenancy to be terminated by way of a notice served by either joint tenant. Mr Sims was adequately protected by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 which gave him the right to at least 4 weeks’ notice before he could be evicted from his home.

Landlords will welcome the decision of the Supreme Court on the basis that it offers them some certainty that they can rely on a notice to quit served by only one joint tenant and the provisions of tenancies permitting this. Furthermore, as Lord Neuberger noted, for the Court to have found otherwise would have forced Mrs Sims to remain a tenant against her will or the landlord to be landed with one tenant instead of two, meaning less security (and particularly relevant for providers of social housing, a family property occupied by a single person). However, the Court relied heavily on the specific facts of this case namely that the terms of the tenancy agreement expressly permitted notice to be served by Mrs Sims alone, terms which Mr Sims had specifically agreed to, and that he benefited from an express provision in the tenancy which required the local authority to consider a request by one joint tenant to remain in the property alone. The local authority had given appropriate consideration to Mr Sims’ request to remain and followed the correct procedures. The upshot of this decision is that whilst the principle that a periodic joint tenancy can be terminated by a single tenant has been upheld, it remains open to tenants to argue that a possession order will interfere with their human rights in the future.