Housing Groups Express Concern Over Move to Deal with Tenancy Hearings on Paper

In the Dáil on 7 May, Rise TD Paul Murphy objected to changes at the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) which he says will disadvantage tenants, particularly those with less confidence or lower levels of education.

In light of social distancing, the RTB is expected to switch from holding adjudication hearings at which landlords and tenants can both be present, to assessing their cases as submitted on paper.

“The RTB is saying… [that] it will not hold physical hearings,” said Murphy.

Murphy in the Dáil, and tenants’ advocates in the city, have raised concerns about the impact that this might have on people’s rights to a fair hearing.

In particular, that it’ll undermine those if parties can’t cross-examine each other, or if tenants have literacy and language issues which make it tough to set out their arguments on paper.

In the Dáil, Minister for Housing Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy said it wasn’t his view that people’s rights were being infringed by the measures: “They are temporary and they are happening because of the advice we have in relation to this pandemic.”

The government’s ban on evictions is in place until the end of June and may be extended further, he said. The minister also expects that the RTB will resume its normal working practices at some stage in the future, he said.

What’s Set to Change?

Tenants’ advocates say they are concerned that disadvantaged renters could lose out because of these changes. It changes fundamentally the way the RTB operates, they say.

Normally, if a tenant or a landlord files a case with the RTB, they can choose to enter into mediation.

If one of the parties doesn’t agree to that or if mediation falls apart, they move on to adjudication.

Ordinarily, that means that both parties or their representatives appear in person, and explain their case to an adjudicator.

Those who are unhappy with an adjudicators’ decision have the right to request a tribunal hearing.

That’s basically the appeal, when the case is heard by three members in a panel.

It’s unclear if those tribunal hearings are in person or on paper. The RTB hasn’t yet responded to questions about the proposed changes, submitted on Friday.

Ensuring a Fair Hearing

Cathy Flanagan, a communications executive with housing charity Threshold, says the RTB should closely monitor the rollout of adjudications based on written submissions to ensure that certain people are not unfairly impacted by the changes.

Some of their clients “are socio-economically or educationally disadvantaged and may not necessarily have English as their first language”, she says.

Threshold will prioritise those most in need to help them with making a submission, she says.

Flanagan says she is satisfied that the proposed changes may work well for resolving simple disputes. But most cases, in her experience, are complicated.

“A typical dispute can involve parties giving oral evidence about disputed conversations or exchanges,” she says.

“A verbal testimony is often crucial in terms of demonstrating the impact on a client in terms of stress and anxiety and so too is the need to cross-examine the other side,” says Flanagan.

She suggests that the RTB examine the possibility of holding hearings while maintaining social distancing or of holding “virtual hearings”.

Patrick Nelis, a housing activist with Dublin West Housing Action who regularly represents tenants in the RTB, agrees.

The changes will severely impact those who are less educated and don’t have access to advice or representation, he says. “It’s crazy.”

Nelis says he believes tenants will lose out without the opportunity to cross-examine a property owner about their reasons for ending a tenancy.

“I tripped up many landlords who claimed they were selling, or moving a family member in or whatever it may be,” he says.

An in-person adjudication hearing also presents an opportunity for tenants and landlords to come to an agreement. “I do a lot of deals in adjudications,” says Nelis.

Affecting Evictions?

Nelis says he thinks the changes at the RTB could make things worse for tenants who fall into rent arrears during the Covid-19 crisis.

The rent supplement payment often doesn’t come close to covering rent in Dublin. So he expects that many who have lost their jobs because of Covid-19 will fall behind on their rent, he says.

Rent supplement for a single person in Dublin is capped at €660, for a couple at €900, or for a couple with one child at €1,250. Average rents in the city are much steeper.

What happens when the evictions ban is lifted? People who are in rent arrears, they are only entitled to 28 days’ noticeregardless of how long they’ve lived in a home, says Nelis.

Under the adjudication system, the RTB will be issuing its decisions, known as “determination orders”, throughout the shutdown period, he says.

That means that for those who have fallen behind on their rent, as soon as the eviction ban is lifted, all their 28 day notice periods will kick in on the same day, says Nelis.

“People have enough hanging over their heads, having lost their jobs, without knowing that as soon as Covid-19 is over they have to get out,” he says. “And having not had a proper hearing.”

The RTB didn’t respond to queries about this.

Flanagan says that Threshold also has concerns about what will happen once the restrictions are lifted.

“We are concerned about the plight of those impacted by the pandemic and their ability to sustain rent payments coupled with the burden of any mounting debts,” she says.

Says Nelis: “If the minister is serious about not evicting people, he should order the RTB not to go ahead with paper-based adjudications.”

That isn’t up the minister though, says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.

“Adjudications are an operational matter for the RTB and they continue to keep all options under review,” he says.

The RTB also operates a free telephone mediation service which has proven very effective in the resolving disputes, he says.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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