Tenancies and the Common Law (19:XI)

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This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by the Law Students' Legal Advice Program on July 1, 2022.

Subject to the RTA, the common law respecting landlord and tenant applies (RTA, s 91).

A. Implied Surrender: Abandonment

At common law, a lease may be ended by “surrender” due to conduct of the parties, consistent only with a “merging” of the tenancy interest back into the landlord’s (owner’s) estate. Surrender occurs, for example, where the tenant abandons the rental unit and the landlord repossesses and re-rents. Generally, no further rent or compensation for the unexpired portion of the tenancy may be claimed on surrender. However, claims for lost rentals are allowed.

Abandonment is cause for ending a tenancy, but regardless of the wording of the tenant’s notice, or the wording of the acceptance of surrender, or the absence of a notice, abandonment gives rise to the landlord’s duty to mitigate.

B. Frustration

The doctrine of frustration applies to residential tenancy agreements (RTA, s 92) and commercial leases (Commercial Tenancy Act, s 30). If some unforeseen event occurs that prevents the agreement from being performed, it will be considered to have been frustrated and is thereby terminated at the time of the event. Frustration will rarely be found where the event appears to be largely self-induced (and the result of acts or omissions which might themselves constitute a breach of covenant, e.g. a municipal closure order made pursuant to a fire bylaw where the landlord failed to install sprinklers). If the event is totally self-induced, the perpetrator will not be able to establish frustration. Two factors to consider beyond the normal contract law concerns are: 1) the length of the unexpired term at the time of frustration, and 2) the possibility of alternative use of the rental unit. If the lease is one to which the RTA doesn’t apply, by common law the doctrine of frustration would not apply.

C. The Right to Distrain the Tenant’s Personal Goods

Under the RTA, a landlord has no right to distrain (i.e. seize) a residential tenant’s personal goods for default in rental payment, nor may the landlord seize a tenant’s personal goods to satisfy another claim or demand, unless the seizure is made by a person authorized by a court order or an enactment (s 26(3) and (4)). If a landlord seizes goods contrary to s 26(3), the tenant may apply to the court for an order to return the property, and/or for a monetary claim for damages. A landlord may, where personal property has been abandoned by the tenant, remove it from the residential property, and must deal with it in accordance with the Residential Tenancy Regulations, which impose specific obligations on landlords in these circumstances. See Sections 24 and 25 of the RTR for specific obligations of landlords.

D. Duty to Mitigate

Under s 7(2) of the RTA, any time a monetary claim arises between landlord and tenant, both have a duty to mitigate damages (i.e. minimize losses). For example, if a tenant breaks a lease that was for a fixed term of one year, the landlord could sue the tenant for the balance of the rent payments. Nonetheless, the landlord has a duty under s 7(2) to try to minimize their loss by re-renting the rental unit as soon as possible, rather than just suing the tenant for the whole year’s rent. A landlord who makes such a claim must prove that they took reasonable steps to re-rent the unit and was not able to do so. See RTB Policy Guideline 5: Duty to Mitigate Loss.

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