Complaints left unanswered and housing deposits lost to the ether are common woes for the estimated 4.5 million UK citizens in rented property. But being threatened with eviction over a board game is rare.
Over the summer, Kevin sat down to a game of Dungeons & Dragons in his Worcester rental property. As a recent D&D convert he was only vaguely familiar with the widespread moral panic caused by the game in the 1980s, when it was accused of promoting satanism, barbarism and cannibalism by concerned and increasingly confused parents.
This hysteria was clearly unfounded, but that memo didn’t reach Kevin’s landlord, who was completing house maintenance while his tenant played the game with some friends. Angered by this group of twenty-somethings exhuming the demonic underworld on his dining room table, the landlord kicked everyone out of the house. The next day, Kevin received a hand delivered a letter, stating that he had two weeks to move out, and warning him not to do anything “Satanic” in that time.
“I knew about the whole Satanic panic thing, but I never really experienced any stigma,” says Kevin, who did not wish to reveal his full name. With just a fortnight to pack his bags, Kevin needed help. He turned to Reddit, and the 50,000+ members of r/LegalAdviceUK, a subreddit specialising in often absurd legal matters. “The subreddit definitely helped, primarily as a second outside opinion but also with what to do if the situation were to escalate,” says Kevin, looking back at his experience. “But sometimes, it’s just nice to have an anonymous moan.”
Created in mid-2014, r/LegalAdviceUK is a platform for all manner of legal dispute, from complex domestic matters to others that are perhaps too embarrassing for Citizens Advice. Is your neighbour threatening to call the police because you garden naked? Is cat mess mysteriously appearing on your doorstep? Could you legally poo in your own garden? Whatever the question, consult r/LegalAdviceUK for the answer. Recently, though, the subreddit has become a lifeline for tenants battling against their landlords.
Its popularity is unsurprising. According to figures supplied by OpenRent, the average rental price for a one bed flat is £709 in Manchester, and £1,426 in London. A 2018 report commissioned by move iQ, in partnership with 192.com, found that just 14 per cent of people trust estate agents to inform them of the negative aspects of a property.
“Letting agents are in the five least trusted professions, lower down than even bankers,” says Sam Hurst, Content Marketing Manager at openrent.co.uk, a service that allows landlords and tenants to communicate away from third party agents. “It’s the action of middlemen agents that has caused a lot of damage in confidence – tenants overwhelmingly prefer to have a direct relationship with their landlord, [but] agents have ripped tenants off with hugely inflated fees for decades.”
r/LegalAdviceUK can’t claim to renew faith in the rental market or lower costs, but it can help level the playing field against disreputable landlords. This fed up group of justice seekers is moderated by five users, including a social worker, a solicitor and a police officer, but for obvious reasons they remain anonymous. “I know what you’re thinking – isn’t it a conflict of interest to have a police officer posting responses to questions about police misconduct?” says the officer, who goes by /u/for_shaaame on the forum. “But I think that I, and the other regular police officer contributors, do a fairly even-handed job of answering questions.”
The r/LegalAdviceUK subreddit started quite naturally. “There was no catalyst,” says moderator and social worker /u/slippyg. But since then, he believes, the subreddit has become a democratiser, allowing users to access reliable legal advice regardless of wealth. “Housing is absolutely essential to people’s health, and the impact of poor quality housing [and] unscrupulous landlords cannot be overstated,” he continues. “Demand is growing and services have been cut, leaving people in a more vulnerable position. As the government continues to neglect the need for good quality, secure, housing, the increasing number of housing posts on /r/LegalAdviceUK is inevitable.”
People may be suspicious of advice given on an anonymous forum, but to tackle misinformation or bad advice r/LegalAdviceUK has adopted some basic rules. Replies must be civil and on-topic, and questions on how to break the law are banned. They disallow private messaging as it could be used for emotional or financial exploitation, and immigration matters cannot be discussed – it’s a criminal offence to provide advice without being a registered immigration adviser.
“We can’t monitor the quality of advice because we’d need to know the answer to everything – and if we did we’d all be a lot richer,” adds /u/slippyg. Instead, r/LegalAdviceUK relies on legally qualified users who report on those who regularly post bad advice.
Fortunately, none of the moderators have had to turn to their own subreddit for advice. “I don’t presume to be above picking my fellow mods’ brains on cases in my professional life, anonymously, of course,” says /u/RexLege, the newest moderator and a solicitor in everyday life. But does the mere existence of r/LegalAdviceUK act as an indictment of a housing market that leads thousands of people to crowdsource their legal advice from Reddit?
“A lot of the time, people are desperate and need guidance; they might not even know if they’ve been legally ‘wronged’ or if they’ve just experienced something that sucks,” says moderator /u/litigant-in-person, who says he is a “reasonably-senior manager at a law firm”. “Commenters can be direct when somebody has made their situation worse, or when the person asking the question is in the wrong. It would be rare for a solicitor to call their client a bellend to their face, but sometimes it’s needed. We have the luxury of that.”
Commenters were kinder to Kevin. Some said his landlord was clearly acting unlawfully, while others pointed out that attempting to evict a tenant for Satanic reasons might qualify as religious discrimination. But thanks to the commenters who took pity on his plight, Kevin was able to fight his case and remain in his home to play on another day. “I recently put my campaign on hiatus,” he says. “But we plan to start again in November.”
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