10 Laws All Students Should Know
Becoming a student and moving out of home can mean coming into contact with all kinds of laws you didn’t know existed.
It may be the first time you’ve signed a contract for anything more exciting than a mobile phone, or the first time you’ve properly been responsible for your own finances. There’s a whole world of bureaucracy that you’re only now getting to know. And there are other things you might be doing for the first time, too – going on protests, for instance, is a factor in student life in a way that isn’t usually when you’re still at school.
All of these things have legal ramifications, and there are lots of urban myths flying around in relation to what you can and can’t do. Thankfully, there are plenty of laws around to protect you. The difficulty is that it’s hard to claim your legal rights when you don’t know what they are (and people like private landlords may themselves not be clear on every rule that they’re supposed to be following). In this article, we take a look at the rights you have by law as a student in Britain. First we’ll look at tenancy laws – as that’s a very big chunk of what students are concerned with – and then we’ll look at some of your other legal rights and responsibilities.
1. If you’re renting with a group of friends, you’re all responsible for paying all the rent
First, some bad news that many students don’t find out about until it’s too late. If you’re renting a house or flat with a group of people and you’ve signed a joint tenancy agreement, you’re all responsible for paying all of the rent. That means that if one person runs out of money, the rest of you are just as responsible for their rent as for your own. Or if all of your flatmates run off to the Bahamas and leave you in the flat on your own, you’re responsible for the rent for the entire property – not just your own share of it.
What can you do about this? First of all, you can look into other ways of renting. For instance, if you’re renting a room in university accommodation, it’s likely that you will be renting as an individual and won’t be liable for anyone else. Second – and this is the most likely solution – you can do your utmost to ensure that you live with financially responsible people. Insisting that everyone pays their rent through a standing order direct to the landlord, rather than other solutions such as collecting cash on the table (which also helps reduce your risk of being robbed) can mean that the landlord follows things up with the non-payer in the first instance, rather than chasing the rest of you.
2. Your landlord can’t visit the property whenever they like
Of all the laws broken by landlords, this is perhaps the one violated most often. After all, you might well assume that someone who owns a property has the right to show up there whenever they like. But that’s not the case; you, as a tenant, are entitled to your privacy too.
This means that the landlord can’t just visit the property on a whim; they have to have a valid reason, such as carrying out an inspection (and they can’t suddenly decide that inspections are weekly if your lease states that they’re quarterly) or doing maintenance. Similarly, they can’t just let in contractors at any time they fancy. They have to contact you in advance and get your permission, and it’s usual to give you at least 24 hours’ notice.
It is worth noting that if you are a lodger living in the same home as your landlord, far fewer rights apply – for instance, if part of your agreement includes them needing access to your room (e.g. to empty the bins!) then they don’t need any legal permission to do so. If you do end up renting as a lodger (legally an ‘excluded occupier’) rather than a tenant, it’s worth reading through your rental agreement very carefully and making sure that it covers everything you might want.
3. Landlords can’t raise the rent whenever they like
How often the landlord is allowed to raise the rent depends on the type of tenancy agreement that you have – this is one of the many reasons that it’s important to read your contract carefully. If your tenancy is fixed-term (e.g. a 9-month term) then your landlord can’t raise your rent during the term without your agreement. The fact that this law exists means that most landlords don’t even try unless there’s a good reason, such as you requesting an alteration to the terms of your lease. If the tenancy is on a rolling basis, your landlord usually needs your permission to raise it more than once a year.
That’s not all; you also have the right to pay a reasonable market rent. There will be some variation within the local area, but the landlord can’t increase the rent so that it’s double the cost of similar properties just because they don’t like your face.
4. The property must be well-maintained
‘Well-maintained’ hides a lot of sins, and you might have read that MPs voted down a law to require rented homes be suitable for human habitation in early 2016. All the same, you are entitled to some standards as a tenant. The property must be sufficiently heated (or at least heatable – if you choose to turn the radiators off to save electricity, that’s on you), ventilated and lit; it must be in good repair; gas, water and electricity should all be working, safe and sanitary; it must be well-secured, with no broken locks or exterior doors that don’t really fit the frame; and any furniture or appliances supplied must be checked and certified as being safe – so no frayed cords on wall lamps, or washing machines that look like antiques set to explode at any minute.
Adequate ventilation is a particular one to look out for, as 61% of renters in Britain have at some point lived in homes that are damp or have mould – many not realising that their landlord is breaking the law by allowing their home to get into that condition.
5. You’re entitled to get your deposit back when you leave
The average tenancy deposit is around £700 and rising sharply – it’s set to reach over £2,700 in London by 2026. That means that not getting your deposit back can result in serious financial pain for renters. But you are entitled to get your full deposit back as long as you don’t owe any rent, haven’t damaged the property or furniture beyond the level of reasonable wear and tear, and all of the fixtures and fittings listed in the inventory are still there. In most rental circumstances, your deposit has to be placed in a tenancy deposit scheme, and they will help you get your deposit back if the landlord is making trouble.
However, if your landlord is claiming that you didn’t pay rent when you did, or that something is missing when it was never there to start with, or you’ve damaged something that was already in that state, it’s useful to have some evidence to support your case. Check everything when you first move in and get your landlord’s acknowledgement (in writing) that you’ve told them about any issues; photos are handy. And make sure you record with your landlord’s agreement when your rent has been paid, for instance in a rent book, so that there can be no dispute over whether you’ve paid up.
1. You have the right to see any information held about you if you have a valid reason
The Data Protection Act allows you to make a ‘subject access request’ to any organisation holding personal data about you. That might be a business that’s refusing you credit but won’t say why, or your university. Some information is excluded, and you have to have a valid reason (not solely “I was curious”) but the principle behind the Act is to encourage openness, so it’s usually worth asking. There can be a fee, usually up to £10 but sometimes more for health or education records.
So if a company or organisation is driving you round the bend by refusing to tell you information that’s relevant to you, you can make a subject access request in order to get hold of it. And given that subject access requests are fiddly and annoying, the organisation might just tell you what you want to know if you raise the idea of making one, in order to avoid the fuss.
2. You can’t be forced to work long or anti-social hours
Student work is often casual, done without proper contracts or in areas that naturally lend themselves to anti-social hours, such as bar work. Happily, the law has some protection against unscrupulous employers. Under the Working Time Directive, you can’t work more than 48 hours per week on average, 40 if you’re under 18. While your employer can request that you opt out of this rule, they can’t sack you or treat you badly for refusing to do so.
You’re also entitled to a reasonable number of breaks. You get at least 20 minutes per day if you’re working for more than 6 hours; you get at least 11 hours’ rest between working days (so if you’re been working until 2am, it’s illegal to ask you to start again at 9) and you get at least 24 uninterrupted hours of time off per week, or 48 per fortnight.
3. Your contract with your university is legally binding
When you first start your course, you’ll sign a contract with your university. You might not even notice that’s what you’re doing, as it will probably happen in a whirl of different activities during Freshers’ Week, and be called something unhelpful like ‘Registration’, but that’s what you’ll be doing.
This is useful because these contracts are legally binding; students have sued their universities for violating them in the past. It’s relevant if the course that you were offered no longer exists, or gets changed to something unrecognisable. It’s likely that the contract will make allowances for reasonable changes (such as those caused by members of staff retired, going on sabbatical or taking parental leave) but it probably won’t allow your course to change utterly – so if that happens, you have recourse to the law.
4. You have the right to protest peacefully
Students have always been known for protesting, and it seems probable that the 2017 intake will have even more opportunities and causes to march, wave banners, chant and generally make a lot of noise in order to affect change. You have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of thought and assembly. While it’s illegal in some countries to gather in large groups, or other laws exist to prevent protest, that’s not the case in the UK. By default, protest is permitted.
However, there are some situations in which a protest would be against the law. For instance, you’re not allowed to ‘breach the peace’, a somewhat all-purpose piece of ancient law that bars you from doing anything that harms or is likely to do harm to people or their property. You can’t trespass on private property, and prevent someone from carrying out a lawful activity, and you can’t block traffic without prior permission. In most large marches in the UK, however, prior permission will have been sought and granted by the march organisers.
5. You should be paid at least minimum wage
While the minimum wage has increased, a side-effect is that minimum-wage laws have become more confusing, as they’re now tiered by age. From April 2017, 18 to 20-year-olds are entitled to £5.60 an hour, rising to £7.05 an hour when they reach 21 and again to £7.50 an hour at 25 and older. Apprentices get £3.50. Whether or not you’re a university student makes no difference, and – crucially for many student jobs – tips aren’t counted towards your wage. So if you’re being underpaid – just as if you’re being illegally prevented from protesting, or denied the course that your university promised to teach you – remember that the law is on your side.
Image credits: cases; desk; money; doorknob; eating £5 notes; safe box; clock; contract; protest; coins.