A cautionary tale from the Brideshead revisited mansion, where tenants who paid just £250 a year in rent refused to move out even after the property was sold at auction in December 2022. Ben Jerome from our commercial property team talks about common law tenancies and notices to quit in the recent sale of Piers Court, a property which once belonged to the author of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, and with which he has a distant but personal connection.

When you think of serving notice to quit on your tenant you imagine (or hope) it will be a simple case of providing a written notice to the tenant, specifying what you consider is a reasonable notice period, and once the notice period has expired the tenant will be on their way. But what is the right notice period when serving a notice to quit?

The answer depends on the type of tenancy arrangement in place, and the individual circumstances on the ground. You could have a business tenancy, an agricultural tenancy or a residential tenancy; and even within these broad headings there are sub-categories of tenancy.

In addition there are all sorts of rules and protections that govern each type of tenancy. These can overlap or only apply in certain circumstances in respect of different types of tenancy arrangement. The subtleties of the various rules and protections should be noted because they can mean additional procedural requirements are needed upon ending the given tenancy. In all cases legal advice should be sought at the earliest opportunity.

By way of a basic example, in the real life case of a residential common law tenancy:

Piers Court is an eight bedroom country house situated in the Cotswolds that recently sold at auction for £3.16M. It was once owned by the novelist Evelyn Waugh who wrote Brideshead Revisited, Officers and Gentlemen, and Men at Arms in the library of the main house. During World War II it was used to house children that were evacuated from town and cities (my grandmother among them).

According to the agents advert Piers Court is subject to a common law tenancy with a rent of a mere £250 per annum. Common law tenancies can be written down or completely oral. In the case of Piers Court we do not know if this is a written or oral common law tenancy, and so we will consider both.

The seller wanted the tenants to quit and eventually the tenants were served with a notice to quit as of 19th August 2022. No doubt the seller hoped the notice to quit would bring matters to a (brides) head but…

While it is not clear from the agent’s advert what the other terms of the common law tenancy are (if any), I can tell you no notice to quit is required for a common law tenancy when it is still within the initial fixed term period; and this rule applies to both written and oral common law tenancies. During the initial fixed term the common law tenancy can be terminated in accordance with the procedure set out in that tenancy without the need for a notice to quit (unless the written procedure requires a notice to quit). Sometimes a court order will still be required and legal advice should be obtained in the first instance.

However if the initial fixed term has expired then we are dealing with a “periodic common law tenancy”. This will require a notice to quit in order to bring the common law tenancy to an end.

In a written, periodic common law tenancy the notice period required for the notice to quit can be set out in the tenancy. In the absence of a specified notice period (such as with an oral periodic common law tenancy) the notice period must correspond to the “period of the tenancy”. The “period of the tenancy” is usually pegged against how often rent is paid. In the case of Piers Court the rent is payable annually (£250 per annum). This means that, in accordance with the underlying law, the notice period will be no more than 6 months but this will expire at the end of the relevant year of the tenancy in which the 6 months’ notice is given.

The relevant year is worked out by ascertaining when the common law tenancy was first entered into i.e. when it was dated (written tenancy) or when it commenced (oral tenancy). If that date is, for example, 31st December then each year of that tenancy will be pegged against the date of 31st December.

In Piers Court we know the notice to quit was served on 19th August 2022, and 6 months post is 19th January 2023. However if the relevant year of the tenancy does not expire until, for example, 31st December 2023 this means the tenants can stay on as late as 1st January 2024 – about 18 months after the original notice to quit was served.

As with most things in life it pays to have sound professional advice from the outset to avoid disappointment later on. While we do not know the background facts that lead to Piers Court being tenanted for a mere £250 per annum we can suggest the terms of that deal would probably have been very different had appropriate professional advice been obtained early on.

The full story relating to Piers Court can be seen in the article from The Guardian in December 2022:


Photo Credit (Piers Court) : Knight Frank