Student launches landmark legal challenge over letting agent's 'admin' fees
A Queen's University student is pursuing a landmark legal challenge against a Belfast letting agent for levying what he believes are unfair and unjustifiable extra charges on tenants.
Paul Loughran took the action after being charged 'admin' and 'application' fees by separate agents, none of whom could properly explain what those fees meant.
The former QUB Students' Union vice president is being supported and represented by Housing Rights NI and the Pro Bono Committee of the Bar Council of Northern Ireland.
The case itself is up for its final hearing next month, with a written judgment expected in the weeks after.
Should he be successful, it is possible that tenants who have paid these fees in the past will be eligible to reclaim them - and it is estimated that millions have been paid in recent times.
"Practically all the Belfast letting agents are doing it," said Paul, who is doing a Masters degree in conflict transformation and social justice.
"Some charge more than others ... if you ever challenge the letting agents as to what the fees are actually for, a lot don't even have a justification for it," he said.
Belfast native Paul and two housemates were each charged a £30 'admin' fee by Piney Rentals LTD in 2014-15 for a property in Stranmillis.
The 25-year-old was also charged £36 by F5 Properties the following year, when he and two friends opted for a house in Stranmillis and, this time, they were each charged what the agency referred to as an 'application fee'.
Mary Gill, who is currently studying for a Masters in urban and rural design at Queen's, took out a lease with Property People in July and she was also charged £45 for an 'admin fee'.
Paul, who was a vice president of Queen's Students' Union from summer 2015 to summer 2017, said he started a landmark test case in September 2016 against the £30 'admin fee' charged by Piney Rentals Ltd in 2014-15.
"The case is testing The Commission on Disposals of Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 which was introduced in the 80's after lobbying by student groups who argued it was unfair that letting agents were charging tenants these fees," he said.
"The legislation states that if any costs are associated with the lease then the landlord who is using the letting agency should be the one issued with these costs as they are the party receiving the service from the letting agency.
"If my case is successful, it is possible that tenants who have paid these fees in the past will be eligible to reclaim them - there are estimated millions that have been paid in recent times."
Piney Rentals Ltd's solicitor Desmond Carr, who is a director in the commercial litigation team at Tughans, explained that the case is "about the legality of letting agent fees in Northern Ireland".
"It is not about whether such fees ought to be banned; that is a political issue, which is currently being considered by the Department of Communities," he said.
"The case is being defended on the basis that there is at present nothing prohibiting such fees.
"My client, like many agents, charges a fee in good faith to the tenant because they provide a service to the tenant. We decided to defend the case because of the potential significant and unfair impact a negative outcome could have for a lot of local businesses."