Contacting Empty Property Owners at their work address

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I have previously visited an empty home owner at his place of work, which believe it or not is a Kirklees' employee, and recently had to resort to contacting an owner at their place of work.

Their property is a terrace that has a roof issue which the neighbour is happy to share the cost of repairing and has got all the relevant quotes. The owner has no contact address on Council tax.  I have sent letters to the empty and two letters 'Care Of' his work place. The last one stating that if he did not contact me I would have no alternative than to visit his work place to speak with him.  As yet I have had no response. 

I did not think there was a problem with this as I have tried all avenues of contacting him about the problem with his empty property and warned him of my visit. I too am interested to hear if I am acting reasonably.

Thank you

Debra Northing

Kirklees Council.

 

Debra Northing

Housing Solutions Empty Homes Officer - Kirklees Council

I did some lightweight investigation via web searches to see if anything would come to light. Nothing very specific to these cases did, but my suggestion is that the following general issues would probably come into play. Correction or amplification by any better-informed source would certainly be welcome.

Data protection:

Whatever process you use to contact someone at their workplace, it is probable that you would need to avoid letting any third party at the place of work (or anywhere else for that matter) know the reason that you were trying to make contact, as this would  likely constitute a breach of privacy under DP legislation.

A possible exception would be any situation where a crime might be committed. From that point of view, a Community Protection Notice rather than normal enforcement action under Housing or Environmental Health legislation might be a useful option to pursue. One would have thought a CPN would certainly be an option in Debra's case where a lack of response from an owner is having an undue impact on immediate neightbours. Failure to comply with a CPN would constitute a criminal offence and lend itself to more robust routes to contact an owner. A grey area here would be the rights of a council as compared with the criminal justice agencies whose role it would be to enforce the CPN.

The information about someone's place of work, job title, work telephone number, email address is personal information. You are entitled to hold it for your legitimate business purposes or to fulfil a public task (which clearly you are doing), but as far as I know your data subject also has the right to know that you hold the data.  A relatively underpublicised aspect of GDPR (if I have read the requirements correctly) is that, when you come into possession of personal data, you are supposed to let the data subject know that you have it, proactively and within a reasonable time-frame. If you hold or obtain work-related personal information, this is something that you ought then to do.

Harassment:

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is the legislation that would probably be invoked if someone thought that you were acting unreasonably in contacting them at work.

Wikipedia puts it thus:

[Section 1] prohibits a person from pursuing "a course of conduct" which "amounts to harassment of another" and which "he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other". A person is taken to know that conduct is harassment if "a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other".

The fact that this discussion is occurring in our forums suggests that there is some risk  that contact at work might be considered as harassment. What, after all, would a 'reasonable person' think about what is being done? But a balancing exercise around the needs of the community which the local authority officers represent would tend to mitigate concerns about contact at work being unreasonable behaviour per se: the priority then would be to ensure that the way in which contact was made, the frequency etc. of such contacts would be handled sensitively, as spelt out by Lorna.

Debt collection as an exemplar

There is at least some overlap in terms of underlying issues with generic debt collection, which is regulated by the FCA. Earlier OFT Guidance did not seem explicitly to ban contact at work (which it could have done). See for example the Citizen's Advice guidance. On the other hand, current FCA Guidance says that contact at work would not normally be appropriate. Considering the reasons that contact is being made by a local authority, the fact that there is not an outright prohibition in the context of debt collection suggests that contact at the workplace, if not normal, could still be appropriate.

I hope that helps somewhat.

I agree it is a grey area.

In my view (which is not that of a lawyer, of course) the question is not whether the empty home owner would think your making contact was 'unreasonable' or a form of 'harassment', but whether a third party would consider it such.  Here a balancing exercise might come into play around your obligations to the community and whether or not you can fulfil them if the owner avoids contact via other routes.

I would also maintain that the guidance relevant to consumer credit agencies - whilst not applicable from the legal point of view - is nevertheless an indication of what might be considered reasonable: I re-iterate that the relevant guidance does not impose an absolute prohibition on making contact at work, although the FCA might have chosen otherwise: it has left the door ajar deliberately.

So my view is that contacting an owner at work is acceptable as a last resort and if it is handled with care and without letting any third party know the purpose of the contact or continuing it in a way that coudl be considered harassment.

Where there are definite risks to the community such as outlined by Debra, then surely the balance shifts a long way towards regarding contact at a workplace as entirely reasonable and appropriate. In other cases, where all other avenues have been exhausted, I would have thought that if not normal, nevertheless this would still be an appropriate option.

PS I might add that someone who leaves a dwelling empty long-term has little claim to be a viewed as a 'reasonable person'.