After the article was published about the “letting club scandal” in May 2018, it was clear that this would not be the end of the story. Soon after the article came out, the local council paid us an intimidating visit. It was not the first time they had visited us, as they had already come in January to review our business model and make a few recommendations for improvement. Last time, they told us to put a sticker on our window and improve the display of our fees on our website. However, this time, it was different. We were labelled as criminals, and the presumption of innocence seemed to be out the window. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?
The Senior Trading Standards Officer came with his mind already made up. The case against us was based solely on the fact that we did not provide a tenancy agreement to our members but instead provided a membership that was equivalent to a license for occupation. This was considered a "huge" crime, although it was similar to what another company (which we will refer to as Company X for legal reasons) had done with no consequences.
We knew that it was "game on" after that visit. The initial prosecution went after my associate - a minority partner in our operation and the person that ran the day-to-day activities. My associate was frightened. She spoke to some lawyers, who scared her even more and after weeks of constant stress, considered leaving the country due to the situation. She asked for my help and that's when Mr. Martin changed his target and went after me instead.
I was not going to be intimidated. I had options and did not have much to lose. They invited me to an interview under caution, but my solicitors strongly advised against it. They warned that in these interviews, they ask questions that can incriminate you. So, I took the advice of my legal team and did not attend the interview.
The Council did not like that I did not attend their interview and kept pressuring me with their solicitors. They threatened to add more charges, such as fraudulent trading and warned that I would end up in jail for many years. At this point, I was more curious than scared. A few weeks later, unsurprisingly, the Council brought a new prosecution against me for running unlicensed HMOs. We prepared our defences and were ready for a legal battle. However, the day before the trial, they dropped all the charges. They had realised that their case was not airtight, and they knew the chances of success were low. The defence cost the company a few thousand pounds, but it was worth it.
More about the legal battle in the next post.