A History of UK Landlord and Tenant Law

The legal relationship between landlords and tenants is one of the most important in history. If the owners of land refused to let people live and work on their land, food could not be grown, stock could not be kept and many people would be homeless. But how did it all begin? When and where did the concept of English landlord and tenant law begin and how has it developed into the system we know today?

The beginning

The manorial system, which originated from the Romans became common from the 5 th century onwards.  Peasants became bound to the land and dependent on their landlords for protection and a basic form of justice.

Following the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, land law in England was governed by the Teutonic custom. The distinguishing features of the Teutonic system were enjoyment of land in common and the (mostly) absence of private ownership (similar to tribalism).

Legislation did not become common until the late 10 th , early 11 th century, with the Code of the Canute (King of the Danes, Norwegians and English (1016-35)).  The code shows a move from tribalism to a feudal system was developing; a cultural change that was cemented following the Norman conquest of 1066.

The Norman Conquest and landlord and tenant law

Feudalism was a form of landlord and tenant law which underpinned the whole of medieval society, right up to the 15 th century (and much later in Eastern Europe).

Under English feudal law, the King was the outright owner of land.  Everyone else, from Dukes to freemen simply ‘held’ land from him.  Landholdings in medieval England were referred to as ‘fiefs’.

When feudal land grants were of indefinite or indeterminate duration, such grants were deemed freehold (the origin of the modern-day term), while fixed term and non-hereditable grants were deemed non-freehold (nowadays referred to leaseholds). However, even freehold fiefs were not unconditionally heritable - before inheriting, the heir had to pay a suitable feudal relief.

Following the Battle of Hastings, King William I (known as William the Conqueror) gave large chunks of land to noblemen who had fought for him in battle.  This new aristocracy were known as Tenants-in-Chief.  The land given to a tenants-in-chief was known as a manor and these were given out in chunks spread throughout the country. The Tenant-in-Chief had to sustain his family and support a number of knights. He would do this by sub-letting his land to other nobles lower on the socio-economic ladder.  The vast majority of people (non-aristocratic) worked on the land growing crops and raising animals.

The tenants-in-chief paid for their land by way of services. If they did not meet the demands of the King, they could have their land confiscated.  This allowed the sovereign to have overall control of all the land in his kingdom.

Note that the only landlord at this time was the King.

The end of feudalism

The legal system of feudalism was open to abuse, as the sole landlord (the King) owed very few duties to his tenants (powerful nobles or who we would refer to today as warlords).

The statute of Quia Emptores (1290) passed by Edward I, provided for the sale and purchase of land (similar to how we know it today), removing the requirement that the tenant had to have some sort of personal relationship with the sovereign in order to own property.

The legal principles of this statute still regulate the transfer of land in England and Wales in modern times.

The modern law of landlord and tenant

Today, all property is still ultimately owned by the Crown.  If the owner of a freehold dies with no heirs, the property will revert to the state.

Prior to World War One, 90% of people in England rented their home.  This dropped to a low of 7% in 1991; however, it is now predicted that the privately rented sector will reach 20 per cent of the total housing market by 2020.

Legislation governing landlord and tenant law today ensures the rights of both parties.  Either side has the ability to challenge the other in a court of law if their tenancy agreement is breached.

To find out more about landlord and tenant law you can search for a property solicitor in your area through Solicitors Guru .


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