HAVE you ever committed a crime by accident? Perhaps you’ve absent-mindedly left a shop without paying, or crept above the speed limit, or breached a celebrity superinjunction. If you’re an “accidental landlord” you might be indulging in criminal activity at this very moment, by letting out a property without registering.

If so, should you be worried? In theory yes, because you’re potentially liable for a stonking great fine of £50,000. Given that registration costs only £55 for three years, plus £11 for each property, it might seem a no-brainer to cough up. In practice, however, few unregistered landlords are likely to be quaking in their boots about that £50,000 fine.

Between the start of 2011 and this time last year, only 25 cases were reported to the procurator fiscal, and the Scottish Government claims not to gather data on prosecutions.

When landlord registration was first introduced it was intended as a “light touch” regime, a way of letting local authorities monitor the supply of privately rented properties in their areas while cracking down on the minority of landlords who persistently fail to carry out repairs, tackle antisocial behaviour or otherwise comply with the rules.

Legislation affecting landlords may have been toughened up over the past decade, but councils do not have the resources or investigatory powers they would need to secure successful prosecutions, and those best placed to provide key evidence – tenants – have little incentive to do so.

If you discover your landlord is unregistered, you’ll find yourself in a bind. You know a crime has been committed, and arguably you are the victim, but if you report it to the authorities you might end up homeless for your trouble. If the local authority refuses to register your landlord, and you have a Short Assured Tenancy, you could be pushed out the door in no time. It’s little wonder landlords are able to get away with it.

“Enforcement” was the watch word at Shelter Scotland’s conference this week, at which Housing and Local Government Minister Kevin Stewart suggested some councils were doing a good job while others needed to pull their socks up. The aim of all this is to improve housing standards across the sector – an important aspiration given that private renting in Scotland has doubled over the past 10 years. A 2011 evaluation of the landlord registration scheme cautiously reported some standard-raising, but noted it had failed to weed out the worst offenders.

We simply do not know how many unregistered landlords are operating at any time, but it’s probably safe to assume many of them are staying under the radar for a reason. Local authorities, housing associations and charities like Shelter take steps to identify them, but this involves laborious and time-consuming methods such as following up on “to let” ads, combing through the Registers of Scotland, and liaising with council tax and antisocial behaviour teams. A mere £22 a year from each small-time landlord does not stretch very far.

Then there are the so-called accidental landlords, perhaps renting out properties they’ve inherited, or had been occupying themselves until a change of job or family circumstances forced a move. Some might also place in this category those with a lump sum to invest who decide bricks and mortar are their best bet.

In truth none of these situations is an accident. No-one is forced to become a landlord – renting out “spare” homes may be the current trend, and letting agencies may make the whole business seem straightforward, but paying a management fee does not absolve a property owner of their personal responsibilities.

This isn’t to say that accidental landlords are necessarily bad landlords, or that criminalisation is the right remedy for cluelessness. Registration enforcement in these cases need not mean cracking down, fining or prosecuting – it can involve informing, educating and gently nudging in the right direction. Shelter have produced a step-by-step guide setting out the duties of new landlords, which has been well received during a year-long pilot scheme in Dundee and the Highlands.

Ultimately, though, failure to register remains a criminal offence and ignorance of the law cannot be a catch-all excuse. Becoming a landlord and failing to register, issue a lease or meet repair standards is surely no more benign than taking on a member of staff then failing to register them as an employee, provide them with a contract or comply with health and safety legislation.

If keeping registered and up-to-date with housing law sounds like a lot of faff and red tape, then remember no-one is forced to do it. These properties are people’s homes – not just nice little earners for those lucky enough to have their names on the title deeds.

So here’s a radical suggestion: why should council and charity workers be forced to scrabble around for information on landlords when every buy-to-let mortgage is signed off by a lender, and every mortgaged homeowner should – in theory at least – also be informing the bank about any change of occupancy?

If the registration regime is to cover the bad apples as well as the good, shouldn’t those funding property empires bear some social responsibility for how they are managed?

That way, councils would be free to get on with the more important work of assisting tenants, raising standards and helping to make renting a positive option, rather than a tenure of last resort.