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Peter Farrington, vice president of the Association of British Investigators, explains how private investigators can be a valuable asset for a solicitor dealing with possession proceedings, and gives some tips on building an effective working relationship.
In property law, there are many occasions when solicitors may require the services of a private investigator. In this article, I look at some of the ways in which an investigator can help in possession proceedings.
This is the most common enquiry our members receive. Usually the people to be traced are tenants who have absconded from the property, owing rent or are responsible for losses arising from damage. Sometimes I am asked to trace owners or their beneficiaries pertinent to properties or land. All trace enquiries have to be conducted lawfully and in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA 1998).
Tread carefully when issuing instructions to investigators to carry out trace enquiries. Insist in all your instructions that all enquiries are carried out lawfully. Do not instruct anybody that has not notified the Information Commissioner’s Office that they are processing data for the purposes of investigations. Notification is a requirement of membership of most representative trade bodies for investigators, including the ABI.
I have been asked on many occasions to conduct enquiries prior to possession proceedings taking place. An investigator will need to know who occupies the property and on what basis. If an eviction is to take place, then we need to know what to expect. For example:
- Are there children / pets at the property?
- Are the occupiers expecting the eviction?
- Are they fully aware of their rehousing options?
- Is there an access issue for the enforcement officer to contend with?
An investigator on the ground can gather information to paint a full picture to the solicitor / client, and help you to plan ahead, hopefully avoiding any nasty surprises.
Communicating with tenants
Many occupants ignore correspondence. An investigator is a skilled professional with good communication skills, who can visit the property and engage with the occupiers with a view to opening dialogue. Whenever I have been asked to do this, I am mindful that I am representing a law firm and I follow precisely their instructions to achieve the desired outcome.
Anti-social behaviour investigations
Such investigations can include gathering evidence covertly of noisy, aggressive, slovenly and criminal behaviour from neighbours, as well as conducting intensive witness interviews to record their accounts of neighbours’ antics and collect every snippet of potentially useful evidence. Courts recognise the difficult position that many witnesses are in, and their reluctance to give evidence. Often the courts will accept evidence presented as hearsay from an investigator. This is a well-used police technique.
I have been asked to act as an agent to take possession of property on several occasions. This involves reporting on the condition of the property, by taking pictures, conducting an inventory, isolating water and gas supplies and securing the place. On one occasion, I even had to get rid of a flock of roosting pigeons! I have regularly arranged for tradespeople to carry out repairs at the request of a landlord or their solicitor.
Top tips for working with investigators
Here are my top tips for making the relationship between solicitors, their clients and investigators run as smoothly as possible in possession proceedings.
- Advise clients to collect as much information about their tenants at the outset. It will be useful when it comes to tracing them in the event of a ‘midnight flit’ or at the commencement of proceedings.
- Advise clients to seek a guarantor and to verify their identity. I once pursued a guarantor that had been dead for two years before he ‘signed’ the agreement.
- Make sure your investigator is bona fide and compliant when it comes to handling data. Some investigators are not, which could embarrass you in the future. You can ensure that your investigator is fully vetted and trained by selecting an investigator from the ABI membership directory (www.theabi.org.uk/find-an-investigator ).
- Don’t dither. If you don’t get an answer to your first letter, send your investigator out to hand-deliver it and make enquiries at the same time. If you don’t act swiftly, the problem generally worsens.
- Talk to the investigator. We are experienced people – what might seem like a new problem to you may be old ground to us. Even if we don’t know the answer, we have access to advice in our own networks.
Bear in mind that there are limits to what an investigator may achieve within the law. Some common requests which our members are obliged to decline include the obtaining of private financial information, telephone records, and keeper’s details from car registration numbers.
That information might lawfully be obtained using the provisions of sections 29 and 35 of the DPA 1998, but it is highly unlikely that it will be disclosed in many cases. There may be grounds to make an application to the court for an order to disclose such data, but this is the domain of the solicitor, not the investigator. However, in the event of such data being lawfully produced, the investigator may play a useful part in following lines of enquiry arising from it.
In summary, forming a relationship with a good investigator pays dividends, giving the solicitor a wider number of options and ‘boots on the ground’. It can really enhance the service you can offer a client, by getting things done promptly and effectively.