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When are Costs “Reasonably Incurred”? – S. 19 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985

7th August 2023

Nicola Muir examines two recent cases on s19 of the Landlord & Tenant Act 1985.

Lessees of residential flats are not fully in control of how or when expenditure to their buildings is  incurred.  However, when it comes to the calculation of their service charge, thankfully they have the benefit of numerous statutory protections to ensure they only pay what is fair.  In particular, Section 19 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 provides that relevant costs are only payable to the extent that they are “reasonably incurred”. But what does that mean and how far can the First Tier Tribunal interfere with the landlord’s decisions as to what money is spent on?

These questions arose in two recent cases – Assethold Ltd v Adam [2022] UKUT 282 (LC) and Various Leaseholders at St George’s Wharf and Battersea Reach LON/00AY/LSC/2019/0338 and LON/00BJ/LSC/2019/0330-.

The starting point in both cases was the seminal case of London Borough of Hounslow v Waaler [2017] EWCA Civ 45.  In Waaler, the Court of Appeal said the question of whether costs have been “reasonably incurred” has to be determined by reference to the objective standard of reasonableness, not by the lower standard of rationality.  There are two stages.  First the landlord must show that it adopted a reasonable decision making process.  However, in addition the outcome of that decision must be a  reasonable one.  There may be more than one reasonable course of action and it is not for the Court or Tribunal to impose its own decision as to what should have been done provided the course adopted was reasonable.

The Assethold case concerned fire safety works.  The landlord had engaged a firm called Hydrock which carried out an intrusive inspection of the walls of the block and provided a report in September 2020 concluding that the construction of those walls did not present a significant fire risk.  However, in January 2021, Hyrdrock carried out a second inspection of different walls and using different processes.  This time their Report concluded that combustible materials were present in the walls and presented an “intolerable” risk with the potential consequences of fire being “extreme”.  Not surprisingly, the report was met with incredulity by the landlord but Hydrock insisted that its later report was correct.  Faced with this risk, the landlord duly hired a waking watch at a cost of £28,000 per month and sought to recover the cost via the service charge.  Horrified by the cost, the lessees  obtained their own report which found that the waking watch was completely unjustified.  Armed with this new information, the lessees argued the waking watch costs could not have been “reasonably incurred”.  The FTT agreed – the Hydrcock advice was simply wrong and the costs were unnecessary.

On the landlord’s appeal, the leaseholders argued that it should be the landlord, not the tenant, who bears the risk of professional advice being incorrect; it is afterall the landlord who bears the risk of the cost or quality of the works being unreasonable. The Upper Tribunal disagreed. Judge Cooke considered the two stage test in Waaler and said that faced with a report from a reputable company saying that the fire risk was intolerable, the landlord could not be said to have acted irrationally by putting interim measures in place pending further reports or remedial work.  Even though the Hydrock Report was ultimately found to be “wrong”, the first test was therefore met. When it came to the outcome, Judge Cooke said that what the FTT had to decide was whether at the time the cost was incurred it was objectively reasonable for the landlord to have put a waking watch in place.  Instead, the FTT had relied on hindsight. The cost of putting interim measures in place pending works to remove the fire risk was therefore recoverable.

The St George Wharfcase, was heard by the First Tier Tribunal but involved no few than 8 Counsel including 3 KCs!  The question before the FTT was deceptively simple but had potentially far-reaching consequences.    In essence, the leaseholders of two very large mixed-use developments argued that, due to an HMRC exemption (ESC 3.18),  VAT of approximately £500,000 p.a. charged on staff costs could have been avoided if those staff were employed by the landlord direct rather than by the managing agents.  There was much debate about what ESC 3.18 actually means, whether the proposed tax avoidance scheme would be acceptable to the Revenue, what it would cost to set up and the practicalities of employing staff direct on a complex estate with multiple landlords.  Ultimately, however, the FTT found that the lessees had failed to show that their alternative scheme was realistically capable of being implemented.

In reaching that decision, again the starting point was Waaler.  In considering the reasonableness of costs found to be contractually/statutorily payable, the relevant considerations would include an assessment of whether the risks inherent in making a fundamental change to the employment structure would be outweighed by the benefit of implementing that structure in terms of costs saved.  The FTT found that both the management and tax risks involved in changing the arrangements for the employment of staff were such that it was not unreasonable for a landlord to refuse to adopt the leaseholders’ proposed alternative scheme.

Interestingly both cases, considered risk.  In both cases, it was found that the landlord is not required to embark on a risky course of action which might save costs in the long run.  Provided, the decision to incur the costs is a reasonable one which leads to a reasonable outcome, the costs will have been reasonably incurred.

This article first appeared in the July edition of the Estates Gazette.

Team: Nicola Muir
Expertise: Residential Landlord & Tenant, Service Charges


This content is provided free of charge for information purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. No responsibility for the accuracy and/ or correctness of the information and commentary set out in the article, or for any consequences of relying on it, is assumed or accepted by any member of Chambers or by Chambers as a whole.



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