If you are involved in the world of property management then you may well come across the First-tier Tribunal (FTT). In this Expert View piece, the block management specialists at Brady Solicitors explain what you can expect at the FTT, whether you are bringing or defending a case.
Firstly, the FTT is not like a formal Court.
In fact, the FTT can feel relatively informal. Whilst some FTTs have their own premises, the hearing can quite often be in a neutral place such as a hotel meeting room.
The tribunal panel is usually made up of three people – a lawyer (who is usually the chairman), a surveyor /valuer (who may also be the chairman) and a lay person(member of the public). You can present your case to the panel in person, or you can have a representative to present your case for you. You can apply to the FTT if you’re a landlord, tenant, freeholder, leaseholder, park home occupier or site owner.
To bring an application to the FTT you will have to pay a fee; this fee depends on factors such as the size of the dispute (in pounds and pence), the type of dispute, and the number of properties involved.
From the LVT to the FTT..
The FTT is still often referred to as the ‘LVT’ or Leasehold Valuation Tribunal, which had been its name until 1 July 2013.
This change was part of a wide-reaching government shake-up of the tribunal system and brought the FTT more in line with other tribunals and courts in the newly-unified system.
The types of cases heard at the FTT are the same as at the LVT, and it runs through the same network of five regional offices, with appeals continuing to be heard in the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber). There were however some procedural changes, with the two most notable ones being:
- The power to strike out a case if a party fails to comply with the directions of the Tribunal, with regard to producing documents in a timely manner.
- The power to award unlimited costs if a person has acted unreasonably in bringing, defending or conducting proceedings.
This is a significant change from the LVT’s cost limit of £500.
The FTT is focused on residential property matters and covers a defined set of cases, including:
- The price to be paid when a leaseholder wants to enfranchise, extend or renew the lease of their home, and the property value cannot be agreed with the freeholder.
- The payability and reasonableness for the payment of service charges. NB: this is by far the most common leaseholder application!
- Disputes over the landlord’s choice of insurer.
- Applications on dispensation of service charge consultation requirements.
- Payability and reasonableness of administration charges.
- Disputes about the right to manage.
- Appointment of a manager or receiver by order, if fault of the landlord is proven.
- Applications for lease variations.
- Determining estate rentcharges, if an estate management scheme is in place.
- Disputes over the right of first refusal procedure (which gives leaseholders the right of first refusal to buy the freehold when the landlord wishes to sell it), and the compulsory acquisition of the landlord’s interest in blocks of flats.
The FTT has no jurisdiction if the leaseholder has agreed or admitted the service charge (note that payment itself does not constitute to an admission). We recommend that you keep an electronic copy of any conversation you have with a lessee where they admit the service charge as this may be useful evidence in the future
As well as direct applications to the FTT, cases can also arrive by referral from the County Court and, when the FTT receives an application, they may decide that a hearing isn’t needed and that they can make a ‘paper decision’ based on the written evidence alone.
There is a process that the FTT follows for all new applications:
- Copy of the application is sent to each person named as a Respondent.
- Notice is given to the secretary of a recognised tenants association, any person whose name the FTT considers is likely to be significantly affected by the application, and any other person it deems appropriate. Those people will either be invited to join as an Applicant or as a Respondent.
- The FTT may give notice to additional parties by publicising the matter in the local newspapers, one of which must be a free newspaper.
- If leaseholders have similar issues that they are seeking to resolve via the FTT, their applications can be joined together, with the option to establish a ‘lead case’ and one or more ‘related cases’. The determination given in the lead case will then apply to all the related cases.
- If there are applications on issues that the FTT considers to be ‘common or related’ to the lead case, these will be bound by the same judgment unless the applicant objects. The applicant has a timeframe of at least 21 days in which to make their objection.
What happens at a First-tier Tribunal hearing?
At an FTT hearing you can give evidence and cross examine the other side on their evidence. The exact procedure and order in which the evidence is heard and issues are dealt with depends on each individual tribunal. There are however some elements that will always be the same across every FTT:
- The hearing will be conducted ‘without unnecessary formality’.
- There are no restrictions on rights of audience – surveyors and other experts often successfully combine the role of advocate and expert witness.
- The FTT panel members will almost always inspect the property at the centre of the case.
- Generally they will welcome opening submission to identify the issues.
- They have no power to hear evidence on oath and formal rules of evidence do not apply.
- Decisions may be given orally but are usually provided in writing, with reasons, within six weeks of the hearing.
- If you’re not happy with the decision you have 28 days to appeal to the Upper Tribunal.
Informality does not mean you don’t need to prepare!
Whilst the FTT is much less formal than a typical court room scenario, a structured argument and focused preparation is essential: don’t leave the tribunal panel to fill in any gaps in your case. Give them the evidence, the documents and the information that they need and, if you are using experts, make sure that their reports are submitted at least seven days before the tribunal hearing.
We would always recommend that you have legal support – such as that available from the First-tier Tribunal experts at Brady Solicitors.
If, however, you are representing yourself, it may help to pop along to a hearing at your local FTT to see what happens. All hearings are in public unless the particular circumstances of a case means the FTT decides to hear all or part of it in private.
If you need advice on bringing or defending a case at the First-tier Tribunal, talk to the property management specialists at Brady Solicitors.
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