Source: Stephen McDermott/TheJournal.ie
THE RESIDENTIAL TENANCIES board (RTB) threatened to take legal action against a protest group after activists occupied the Dublin office last year and forced the cancellation of a tribunal hearing.
Around 50 people occupied the board’s office for less than two hours on 21 November last year to call for a number of changes to the system.
Take Back the City issued a document with a set of demands to RTB Director Rosalind Carroll on the day of the protest including; that evictions be immediately banned, the establishment of an independent rental board, a cap on rents of 20% of income, the exclusion of individuals from the RTB tribunal if they have property interest and the licencing of all landlords.
In a written response to matters raised by the group, released to TheJournal.ie through a Freedom of Information request, Carroll wrote that the activists had disrupted the work of the RTB that day.
She said RTB staff and panel members “felt intimidated by their presence and behaviour towards them”.
Internal correspondence shows the RTB sent a circular to all staff to inform them that a counselling service was available. Assistant Director Carmel Diskin also told staff that the RTB would be reviewing its security procedures in light of the incident.
‘All legal avenues’
The letter from Carroll in response to protesters was sent in January this year to Patrick Nelis of Dublin West Housing Action, who was one of the organisers of the protest.
“The events of 21 November 2018, which you were a party to, undermine the work of the RTB and creates an atmosphere where persons attending to have their dispute heard, feel uncomfortable and intimidated,” she wrote.
Carroll told Nelis in her letter that the RTB “cannot tolerate such behaviour and in future” and would have no choice but to “avail of all legal avenues open to us” to continue its work.
“This may include injunctive proceedings to stop any persons entering the premises whose intention to clearly disrupt the work of the RTB.”
She said attendance by the public at a tribunal hearing is on a first come first served basis and “will not be permitted once the maximum occupancy of the room has been reached”.
Nelis, who has supported tenants in hundreds of RTB cases in the last year and a half (and lost just 37 of those) told TheJournal.ie that he has not been prevented from continuing with this work since the protest.
Much of the work he does it in supporting tenants in the adjudication process. An adjudicator will hear all evidence relevant to the dispute and make determination that can then be appealed to the RTB’s tribunal if either party is unhappy with the outcome.
Nelis said since the protest he has noticed adjudicators have begun to “clamp down on political statements, or mentions of the homeless crisis”.
The tribunal members don’t like to see me coming. One thing that has changed for me is that I am getting the same adjudicators all the time now. Even in the easy cases, the one that are really clear cut, I get the tough adjudicators.
Nelis said he still has a problem with the make-up of the tribunal board. Tribunal members hear evidence in hearings and make a decision that is binding if it is not appealed to the High Court.
He pointed out that while some of the people who sit on tribunal panels have experience in the rental or real estate sector, none have a background in tenant or housing advocacy.
In her letter to Nelis earlier this year, Carroll also explained that the selection process for its panel members, which is “by way of open competition”.
She said the appointments involve “rigorous testing” including an exam, report writing and interview based assessments. The focus, she said, is to ensure a clear understanding of the legislation, that legal principles and due process are applied, and that well reasoned decisions should be applied.
“Panels are filled by individuals from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom are legal professionals, some may also have experience of working in the rental sector. Panel members are self-employed and independent decision makers,” Carroll said.
It is up to a panel member to recuse themselves from a case if they believe there is a conflict of interest and Carroll said the RTB “would and have replaced members that have declared such a conflict”.
Last year the number of disputes between landlords and tenants brought to the RTB increased by 10%, with 6,398 applications for dispute resolution.
The main reasons disputes were brought to the RTB involved rent arrears/overholding comprising 26% of complaints, the validity of a notice of termination at 22%, and deposit retention at 20%.
In 2018, 42% of all notices of termination submitted by landlords were deemed to be invalid, while some 45% of all disputes raised were withdrawn or settled before a hearing took place.
In a statement to TheJournal.ie this week, the RTB reiterated the position Carroll took in her January letter, stating that the protest last year “seriously compromised” the safety of staff, panel members and the general public in attendance”.
The safety and privacy of all persons concerned is of paramount importance to us and as stated previously, should any person or group continue to target and undermine our tribunal hearings, we will have no choice but to avail of legal proceedings in order to protect the safety of persons or the legal process in this regard.
Nelis told TheJournal.ie that he and his fellow housing activist do intend to protest at the RTB’s protest offices again in the future.
We don’t know when, I’m overloaded with cases at the moment. I wouldn’t mind an injunction, it’ll look bad on them to do that to us for highlighting problems there.
“We’re housing activists at the end of the day, we’re there to represent people.”