While 10 or 20 years ago the subject of cannabis farms would be fairly niche to say the least, times are certainly changing across the UK. As we approach what many suggest will be the legalisation of drugs such as cannabis, it seems that a growing number of people are already ensuring their supply lines. Police in London alone are discovering one new cannabis farm every two days – we can only guess the situation across the rest of the UK.
The issue of landlord liability with regards to illegal activities being carried out on their premises is not straightforward but something to be aware of. Where do landlords stand with regards to liability?
Taking prompt action
When you consider the likes of insurance giant Aviva is currently considering £1.5 million in claims relating to cannabis farming, and damage caused to property, this highlights the size of the problem. While we are focusing on residential property this is also a big issue for commercial premises. As a responsible landlord it is imperative that you take action as soon as possible in the event of suspicions or evidence emerging. There are a number of tell-tale signs regarding cannabis farms such as:-
- Strong smell of cannabis during the cutting period
- Excessive rubbish including electric lamp boxes, grow bags and compost bags
- Blacked out windows
- Constant use of ventilation equipment – potentially very noisy
- Huge increase in electric bill (24 hour heat lamps cost a lot of money)
- Comings and goings during unsociable hours
- High levels of condensation in the property
If as a landlord you suspect that your tenant is growing cannabis or dealing drugs you should approach the police as soon as possible. Unfortunately, if there is some credence to the accusations then the police may effectively close your property from 48 hours up to 3 months. In reality the closure is likely to be relatively short lived but there is potential to extend this.
If there was damage caused by illegal activity on a landlord premises, such as a cannabis farm, it may be difficult to claim damages on insurance if the relevant checks and inspections had not been carried out. Be very wary, many insurance policies, especially at the lower cost end of the market, will have significant conditions around this which may affect a claim.
How do landlords protect themselves?
In recent years we have seen new legislation brought in which places a number of legal obligations on landlords with regard to their tenants. These include:-
- Tenant verification
It is extremely important that landlords are able to confirm that potential tenants are legally living in the UK and allowed to stay. There is the potential for unlimited fines and a custodial sentence if the relevant checks and paperwork and not pursued. In reality, no landlord should ever take on a tenant without verifying their identification and track record.
In a perfect world a positive reference from a former landlord would be very useful when looking to check out a potential tenant. In the event these are not available, a reference from prominent figures in the community should suffice.
- Photo ID
It is imperative that you obtain photo ID when looking at a potential new tenant. Also, do not automatically assume that families and couples are “obviously law-abiding citizens” because criminals are extremely innovative these days!
- Credit checks
It goes without saying that you should carry out a credit check on potential tenants which will determine whether they are “good for the money”. At this point it is worth noting that at least the first rental payment should be paid via the BACS transfer system thereby instigating a paper trail in the event of future problems. Cash may still be King but it is frowned upon by the authorities and a magnet for criminal gangs.
- Regular inspections
Within a tenant lease will be a section that confirms the process by which a landlord can request an external (every 3 months) and internal inspection (every 6 months) of the property. When looking towards the likes of cannabis farms it is imperative the checks are carried out as they could strengthen the landlords defence in the event of illegal activity in the future.
There is no doubt that the subject of cannabis farms is of greater relevance today than it ever has been. As we touched on above, insurance companies are investigating millions of pounds of claims relating to damage caused by cannabis farms and other illegal activities. If it was proved that a landlord knowingly allowed drug dealing/drug use within their premises they could in theory receive an unlimited fine and/or a custodial sentence.
The whole issue of liability/responsibility is something of a grey area but in some cases it is more clear-cut than others. It is also worth remembering that this type of criminal activity often goes hand-in-hand with other illegal activity, such as tamping with the supply of electricity (as a means of hiding excessive use).