Landlords often have to deal with items left behind in their properties by tenants, especially when that tenant has disappeared rather quickly. In this situation, the landlord becomes an involuntary bailee in possession of the goods belonging to the tenant, the bailor. The bailee has various legal responsibilities, and cannot simply dispose of the goods.
Notice to take delivery of goods
In order to dispose of the goods, the bailee must follow a statutory method set out in the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act. If the bailee is reasonably satisfied that the bailor owns the goods, then the bailee must serve the bailor with a written notice requiring the bailor to take delivery of the goods. Often this notice is combined with a notice stating that should the bailor fail to take delivery, then the bailee will sell the goods on or after a certain date. If so, the notice must state:
- the particulars of the goods;
- where the goods are being held;
- that the goods are ready for delivery;
- the amount, if any, payable in respect of the goods; and
- the date on or after which the bailee intends to sell the goods.
The date specified in the notice must give the bailor a reasonable length of time to take delivery of the goods. There is no guidance as to what is reasonable. Often, the lease itself will specify the length of notice a landlord must give and if this is available this would seem to set the parameters for what is reasonable.
Until the notice expires, the bailee is obliged to take reasonable care of the goods.
Where the bailor fails to comply with the notice, then the bailee will become entitled to sell the goods.
Whereabouts of bailor unknown
In this case the bailee must take reasonable steps to ascertain the whereabouts of the bailor. If an address can be established then a notice must be served as set out above. If an address cannot be found then it is likely that the bailee may sell the goods.
Liability to account for proceeds of sale
A bailee must account to the bailor for all proceeds of sale, less any costs. The bailee must be able to show that he adopted the best method of sale under the circumstances. Disposal by auction will normally suffice.
If the procedure set out above is not complied with and the bailee sells the goods, then the bailee may be liable in damages.
Application to court
An application may be made to court to supplement the bailee's power of sale. This is the safest option as it will provide the landlord with protection against the bailor and will also give good title against the bailor to any purchaser of the goods. However, a court application is likely to be very expensive compared with the value of the goods in question.
It is advisable for the landlord to take an inventory of all goods left by the tenant, and to take photographs in order to prove what condition those goods were in at that date.