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Legal Action against St. Andrews Letting Agent

Wilson Jones is a Philadelphia native and St Andrews alumni (‘21 & ’22). His research has been published

by the U.S. Army War College, where it was awarded an honorarium by the Commandant. He currently works with GlobalData in London and also helps coordinate Blue Sky Career Aid, which assists Ukrainian refugees.

Tell us a little bit about who you are, your experience at St. Andrews, and your experience with the St. Andrews Law Review.

I am an American alumni who did undergraduate and postgraduate courses at St Andrews, International Relations & Philosophy '21, Strategic Studies '22. I joined the Law Review in my last few years and wrote a few articles, including about the housing crisis in town. I was also involved with the Campaign for Affordable Student Housing (CASH) and was a member of LivingRent Scotland, the national tenants union. I had a great experience at St Andrews, although the landlord situation was an exception. Being an international student made the situation more difficult, as I was unfamiliar with British and Scottish law. Additionally, the University did nothing to help me. Their free legal service was closed for all of 2022 and most of 2023 due to COVID, and only reopened a few weeks ago. I was told that as I was in a contract with a private landlord, the University had no authority or ability to intervene.

What drove you to pursue legal action against your St. Andrews landlord?

I was driven to pursue legal action because of my treatment from my former letting agent and her agency. I began a contract in January 2022, which included Clause 1.8 stating the landlord wished to reoccupy the property during the British Open that July. I was initially ready to comply with this clause, as I thought it was a non-negotiable element of the contract. Had I objected to it, my letting agent would certainly have found another student to rent the property, given the nature of St Andrew's rental market. Clause 1.8 was incredibly brief, and offered zero information on rent reductions, utilities, inspections, cleanings, or anything other than that I had to be out of the property. I raised questions about this over several months to no response. The tribunal found Premierlet failed to communicate with me on these issues. This prompted me to get involved with CASH and LivingRent. With their help, and advice from Fife Legal Aid and Shelter Scotland, it became apparent that Premierlet was not acting legally.

Can you tell us a little bit about your story and outline the experience of your tribunal case?

By June, Premierlet had still not answered my essential questions or even offered a rent reduction. They put me in touch with the property owner's husband, who tried to convince me to leave. His inconsistent story convinced me not to go. It wasn't until two days before the deadline to vacate that Premierlet confirmed they would allow me to remain in the property. Afterwards, I filed a formal complaint to Premierlet, citing how their failure to communicate had pushed the issue to the last possible moment, causing me significant distress during my master's dissertation and undergrad graduation ceremony. This led to a formal mediation, attended by LivingRent representatives, which proved unproductive. My demands were for an apology and compensation for damages. Premierlet refused to offer any apology that did not include a non-disclosure agreement, and refused to offer compensation. Since they refused to take responsibility for their actions, I had no other options but to file a case with the tribunal. This required sending in copies of my rental contract and email records, sending a written representation, and responding to representations from Premierlet's lawyer. The Scottish First Tier Tribunal's Housing and Properties Chamber operates remotely, which made the process much easier. I was calling in from Philadelphia on the day of the trial. The trial started with a discussion of evidence, where I defended admissibility. Following that, I gave my statement, was cross examined by Premierlet's lawyer. I introduced and questioned my witnesses, who were cross examined. Finally, my letting agent gave her statement, and I cross examined her. We then gave concluding remarks, and the court adjourned to deliberate. During this whole process, I represented myself to the Tribunal. It is designed to make it as easy as possible for lay people to argue their cases, which helps ensure citizens can notify the government of illegal activities.

How do you think your personal experience with your former landlord demonstrates the current housing crisis in St. Andrews?

This personal experience with Premierlet demonstrates the St Andrews housing crisis is entirely out of control. Landlords and letting agents are aware of the enormous demand of the market, which enables them to charge outrageous rents while offering minimal services. They also know the St Andrews student population has a significant international component. Young foreign students are among the least likely tenants to assert their rights, given they are in an unfamiliar legal setting and are concerned for their visa status. Premierlet mentioned, in the course of our mediation, that other properties they administer had been subject to the same clauses for the Open, and that I was the only one creating a problem. I have no doubt that other tenants were illegally removed from their properties so that landlords could rent out their homes to Open tourists. The St Andrews housing market is increasingly designed to serve a part-time tourist trade, rather than provide housing to members of its community. Speculative housing investments, especially AirBnB conversions, have made this problem significantly worse in recent years. The profits of this industry create a moral hazard incentivizing fraud. Premierlet acting illegally believing that they could exploit an easy mark, another foreign student who didn't know their rights.

What would you recommend to St. Andrews students who feel overwhelmed by the housing crisis and are facing unfair treatment from their landlords?

If you're a student who is receiving unfair treatment from your landlord or letting agent, I have felt that pain and stress and empathize with you. The best thing you can do is learn your rights and advocate for yourself. It's not easy, but there are many free resources devoted to this issue. LivingRent Scotland is our national tenant's union, and CASH is a local organization devoted specifically to St Andrews housing issues. Fife Legal Aid and Shelter Scotland are two government run organizations which can provide you with independent assessment of the issues. Read the Letting Agents Code of Practice for Scotland. It is short and specifically describes ethical regulations that must be followed. After a quick read, I discovered Premierlet was breaking the law. An important fact which I learned during my case is that letting agents are legally required to be neutral actors. They have equal obligations to their tenants and landlords to ensure fair business dealings and safe, liveable accommodation. Most students do not know this, as many St Andrews properties are administered by letting agents who treat students as lesser partners.

My advice if you are being treated unfairly is to read over the Code of Practice and contact any of these organizations for help. Do not be afraid and do not be intimidated by your landlord. Specifically describe your problem in a written email to your landlord or letting agency. They are required, per the Code of Practice, to respond in a reasonable timeframe. Phone calls and in-person conversations can be disputed, while anything written down can be admitted as evidence in court, should that be required.

I really want to stress to current students that they can and should advocate for their rights. We should not put up with this horrendous treatment from St Andrews landlords.


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