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Unreasonably withholding consent to assign a lease

How unreasonable does a landlord have to be?

Leases will usually require a landlord’s consent before a tenant can assign, sublet, or otherwise part with possession of premises.  This is understandable as a landlord needs the ability to protect their interest in their premises. In the current market however, a tenant’s need for premises can change quickly and often, particularly in retail units where customer preferences and footfall are vital.

Section 19(1) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1927 says that for all leases where there is a requirement on a tenant to obtain a landlord’s consent before assigning, underletting or in any way changing possession of all or part of the premises, consent is not to be unreasonably withheld.  As a result, a landlord must always act reasonably – although reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean correctly or justifiably – just what a reasonable person would do in those circumstances. The decision must be based on the relationship of the landlord and tenant and a landlord cannot look to better their position by refusing consent.

When can a landlord refuse consent?

It may be reasonable to withhold consent if the assignee does not appear able to make the rental commitments required under the lease.  A profit level of ‘three times the annual rent’ is often used as a benchmark to show that a tenant can make the rental payments.  That is not a hard and fast rule though and a landlord refusing consent on the basis that a tenant’s profit levels do not meet that criteria will not necessarily be reasonable. It would be reasonable to refuse consent where the proposed assignee would use the premises for a use which would be a breach of the user covenant. Similarly, the landlord can refuse consent if it wants to maintain a good tenant mix, for example in a shopping centre.  It is also reasonable for a landlord to refuse to assign a lease to an assignee who would be in direct competition with their business.

However, it is unreasonable for a landlord to refuse consent where they look to obtain a variation to the lease to improve their position as a condition of granting consent or on any grounds which are discriminatory to the proposed assignee or sub-tenant.  Also, a landlord cannot reasonably withhold consent to an underletting on the basis that to do so may set a low rent comparable for forthcoming rent reviews.

Less clear cut examples are where a landlord refuses consent to sub-let due to concerns about the long term viability of the sub-tenant. The landlord’s direct covenant with the tenant remains and so the landlord’s ability to collect rent should not be affected.  However, it is possible that the market will perceive the sub-letting as a reduction in the value of the property and that could affect the landlord’s reversionary interest.  Similarly if the landlord refuses consent to assign or sub-let on the basis of existing breaches of covenant by the tenant, it will depend on the severity of the breaches and the likelihood of the assignee or sub-tenant to remedy them.  It would be unreasonable for a landlord to refuse consent to assign on the basis of minor disrepair works, but it may be reasonable to refuse consent to assign where there are substantial dilapidations and the assignee does not appear to have the means to remedy the defects. In cases like this whether or not refusal is unreasonable will depend on all the facts in that particular case.

Timing of applications

The timing of a landlord’s response is also covered by statute.  The Landlord and Tenant Act 1988 Section 1(3) states that a landlord owes a duty to a tenant to respond to any application for consent within a reasonable time.  What constitutes a reasonable time will depend on each set of circumstances and it would be impossible to set down hard and fast rules. However, case law does give us some indications as to what is and isn’t reasonable. The time period will run from when a landlord receives a complete formal application from the tenant and ends when the landlord’s decision is notified to the tenant.  The time period between those two will need to be as short as is sensibly possible   It will be weeks and not months, but holiday periods will be taken into account as will the complexities of the deal. 

Ultimately it is for the tenant to demonstrate that the landlord is acting unreasonably rather than the landlord to prove its behaviour is reasonable.  As such, a tenant making a formal application needs to provide as much information as possible at the time of making the application and provide all relevant details. It will be far easier for a tenant to prove that the landlord is unreasonably withholding consent where the application included complete and comprehensive supporting information, rather than where information has been provided piecemeal and reactively.

Landlords receiving applications need to act promptly as the time limits explained above will apply once the application is made.  If you are unsure whether you need to treat the communication from a tenant as a formal application for consent to assign, then ask the question. Correspondence from a tenant saying that you are out of time to withhold consent will put a landlord on the back foot – even if consent would have been granted in any event.

When considering an application to assign, sublet or part with possession, or if you are a landlord you receive one, it is worth taking advice to ensure you are aware of your rights and the likely consequences of consent being refused.

If you require any further information please contact a member of our expert Real Estate Litigation team.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.