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The government should consider giving Gardaí powers to arrest without a warrant anyone illegally evicting a tenant, wrote an official at the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) in a letter to the Department of Housing.
It is one of several recommendations made by the RTB in a report and cover letter that it sent to the department last November, on request of Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, of Fianna Fáil.
O’Brien had asked the RTB to look at how the state could improve its response to illegal evictions to better protect tenants.
He sought the report back in August 2020, after a high-profile eviction of eight people from a building on Berkeley Road in Phibsboro, at which a crowd of men forcibly removed the tenants, and wrecked inside, smashing the toilet and sink, tearing out bannisters and pulling lightbulbs from the ceiling.
“On receipt of your report I will swiftly consider it and move to implement any relevant recommendations that will further protect tenants,” O’Brien wrote to the RTB that month.
Ongoing legal proceedings around the Berkeley Road case meant that the RTB only sent the report last November. O’Brien reviewed it in February, says a letter from a department official to the RTB.
Empowering gardaí to intervene in illegal evictions would be a change from current policing policy, which is for gardaí not to get involved in tenancy matters.
“Should members of An Garda Síochána be present at an eviction, the role of An Garda Síochána is to ensure peace and public order is maintained, and no criminal offence is committed,” says a Garda policy document issued in October 2020.
“An Garda Síochána should not engage in any such tenancy disputes unless a Criminal Offence is alleged or disclosed,” the document says.
Liam Herrick, the executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said: “We’ve been raising concerns about the role of gardaí at evictions for several years.”
But to date, the focus has been on the role of gardaí in legal evictions or repossessions when a court order has been issued, he says. Less attention has been paid to cases of illegal evictions, he said.
The RTB recommendation suggests an attempt to have a more rounded understanding of the issue and that there needs to be a review of Garda policy that takes this into account, said Herrick. “It’s a very significant and positive development.”
Mary Conway, a spokesperson for the Irish Property Owners Association (IPOA), said her organisation had condemned the eviction on Berkeley Road when it happened, and called it intolerable.
They also said, though, that most landlords comply with their obligations.
“The IPOA is concerned that the proposed recommendations” – stronger policing powers are just one – “although well-meaning, constitute a disproportionate response that will unduly deter landlords from meaningfully participating in the property market amid a deep housing crisis,” she said.
An RTB spokesperson didn’t directly address questions as to whether it had heard back from the Department of Housing about this specific idea around policing, and whether any action had been taken in relation to the proposal.
“The RTB maintains an open dialogue with the Department as part of our relationship with them. This includes ongoing consideration of legislative changes,” they said.
The Department of Housing hasn’t responded to queries about its position on the suggestion of empowering gardaí to arrest people involved in illegally evicting tenants, whether it has plans to implement it, and what has been done to date.
A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána press office said: “An Garda Síochána does not comment on legislation, proposed or otherwise.”
Gardaí’s current policy document on policing evictions explains what kicks off when gardaí are notified of an eviction. They have to carry out a risk assessment and decide how to deploy, the document says.
That assessment should look at a list of things. Among them, the legality of the eviction, whether the agents carrying it out are trained and have an operational plan, any human rights concerns, and the role of gardaí noted in any court orders.
But the policy appears to relate mostly to cases that have come before the courts, and for which the courts have issued repossession orders.
It doesn’t talk much about cases of illegal evictions. Cases where a landlord hasn’t gone through the disputes process at the RTB, won the case there, and then applied to the District Court to enforce any RTB decision to evict if a tenant hasn’t left.
And despite the policy, RTB reports of tribunal hearings about illegal evictions do show snapshots of gardaí getting involved in tenancy disputes.
In December 2020, a tenant in County Cork returned home to find the landlord and two other man there, he told the RTB. A Garda car arrived within 20 minutes, he said.
“Gardaí spoke at length to the Landlord and the Garda then told him that he was not getting access to the house,” according to the tenant’s account.
“He stated that he then entered the house with the two Gardaí, got a few of his belongings that he needed for work such as his laptop and that he then left,” it says.
Veering into Criminal?
Tribunal reports at the RTB also show the variable responses from gardaí when allegations of criminal offences are made.
A tenant in Letterkenny told an RTB tribunal in October 2021 that he had called gardaí after repeatedly being threatened by his landlord, who had tried to evict his family.
“The tenant stated that when he spoke to the Gardaí about the issue they said that they would speak to the Landlord and that on that occasion they would arrest him,” the report says.
After gardaí spoke to the landlord, he stopped coming to the home, the report says – until just before the tribunal hearing.
The landlord in the Letterkenny case said allegations he had threatened the tenant were unfounded. But based on the video and oral evidence, the tribunal found in favour of the tenant.
Yet, gardaí aren’t always open to pursue criminal allegations.
A shaky video taken last Wednesday from inside 21 Harrington Street in Portobello shows a scrum by the front door, at the end of the long, high-ceilinged entrance hall of the old Georgian building.
There are shouts. Tenant Rosemary Jones says a group of men were trying to block her from getting back into the house, where she rents a downstairs studio.
Protestors outside helped her get in, she says, while the landlord’s workers – who were not registered security guards – pushed her and pulled her by her t-shirt.
Off camera afterwards, she can be heard coughing. “I’m shaking,” says Jones.
As Jones sees it, she was assaulted, she says.
But when she tried to complain to gardaí later they refused to take a statement from her, says Jones. They told her it was a civil matter, she says.
“That is completely unfair,” she says. “I wanted to press charges.”
Another tenant, Dylan Reynolds, said workmen for the landlord blocked off fire exits and entered tenants’ homes without permission and removed their belongings.
Reynolds took a video of workmen trying to board up one of the doors to Jones’ flat while she is still in the room. They had cleared out all her possessions and stacked them in the hall upstairs, photos show.
The Garda press office didn’t respond to queries sent on 18 May, including why they hadn’t taken statements from people who alleged they had been assaulted, and how they can know that no crimes had taken place if they hadn’t taken statements.
They also didn’t respond to queries as to what training they have to deal with these disputes.
Landlord Ronald McCourt said by phone on 22 May that he didn’t want to answer questions about the evictions.
Even in cases where Gardaí do look into allegations of criminal behaviour related to evictions, it might go nowhere.
After the illegal eviction on Berkeley Road in Dublin’s north inner-city in August 2020, tenants complained of destroyed belongings.
One later told an RTB tribunal during a hearing about a smashed sound system and blender, and how their mattresses had been hauled away.
In their decision on the case, the tribunal said that it was clear from videos that “the actions of the Respondent Landlord’s employees were violent and carried out with a degree of vandalism”.
“Their behaviour was thuggish and intimidatory; the Tribunal accepts that a number of personal items were damaged on the day in question,” it says.
In August 2020, after public outcry around the policing, Deputy Commissioner John Twomey said that gardaí were carrying out an investigation into alleged criminal damage.
On Monday, a spokesperson in the Garda press office said a full investigation was carried out. “A file was prepared and sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP directed no prosecution.”
That was the same outcome as a case from January 2021. That time, a taxi-driver living in Rialto complained to gardaí that somebody had gone into his flat, and stolen his spare car key, and his car.
He then got a phone call from an unknown person telling him to pay rent arrears, and leave the apartment. He moved out and was told where to find his taxi, parked behind the Lidl on Cork Street, he told the RTB tribunal during a hearing.
A spokesperson in the Garda press office said a full investigation was carried out. The car was recovered, they said. “A file was prepared and sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP directed no prosecution.”
A Good Idea?
Herrick, the executive director of ICCL, said the focus of policing around evictions seems to date to have been on keeping public order.
But evictions can quickly cross over from civil to criminal, he said, with violence or the destruction of property, and the RTB’s suggested change seems to pay greater attention to that.
“There hasn’t been nearly enough consideration given to the vulnerability of tenants subject to illegal evictions,” he says.
Paul Murphy, the People Before Profit TD, said he would welcome the proposed change.
“Because the reality at the moment is that when the guards arrive at illegal evictions they say that it is nothing to do with them. They say it’s a civil matter and they do refuse to intervene,” he says.
“The idea that landlords should be able to carry out illegal evictions without any danger of intervention by the gardaí is obviously a real problem, considering the power relations between the landlord and the tenant,” he said.
While there’s no excuse for gardaí being hands-off in Harrington Street, given there was violence and threats of violence, changing the law would help to make sure they respond in similar situations, he said.
“I think if you had a law that is very clear saying that gardaí can arrest people for carrying out illegal evictions, I think that would send a clear signal to the guards, I also think that tenants would become aware of it,” he said.
“And the excuse that the gardaí usually have, that this is a civil matter, that wouldn’t wash with anybody,” he said.
The report sent by the RTB to the Housing Minister about illegal evictions and how to respond better to them, notes that there can be other overlapping disputes in play.
“Illegal eviction cases can be complex and cases that come before the RTB often involve other contributory factors such as rent arrears and anti-social behaviour,” it says.
In the illegal eviction case in County Cork in December 2020, the landlord told the RTB tribunal that he had been frustrated by growing rent arrears and feared another lockdown.
He told them it would have taken him another six or seven months to file with the District Court for an order to repossess the home. “And that he was not aware of that process.”
In another case in County Kerry heard by an RTB tribunal in December 2021, a landlord also said that the tenants were in rent arrears. He expressed regret, his solicitor said, saying he wouldn’t have done the eviction again if he were to go back in time.
But the solicitor said that “he did so under an abundance of pressure, family and financial, which had caused him to make a bad judgment which he regretted”.
The landlord had gone to gardaí ahead of time to tell them he was going to enforce an RTB order. Gardaí arrived at the house early on in the eviction.
In her testimony, a tenant, who was pregnant at the time, said: “Gardaí said the best advice was to gather the legal documents that they could and vacate the property.”
Murphy, the People Before Profit TD, says that a tenant refusing to leave after a deadline on a notice has passed or not having paid the rent is not justification for an illegal eviction.
Neither is the length of time the process takes to go through the RTB and the courts, he said.
“I mean, in no other aspect of life, or the criminal law, do we say that someone’s frustration makes it a legal act,” he says.
“There are cases of assault where someone has been continually taunted but it doesn’t stop the guards intervening to stop that assault,” he said.
“The law is the law and tenants have protections for good reasons. We have less protections in this state than you have in many European countries. This is a tenant’s home,” he said. “It may be the landlords’ property, but this is a tenant’s home.”
Will Anything Happen?
The report on illegal evictions drawn up by the RTB for the minister looked at cases brought to it between 2017 and 2020.
“Data showed that while case numbers are low the impact of an illegal eviction was high and very detrimental to tenants in many cases,” it says.
A spokesperson for Threshold said that it has seen an increase in illegal evictions during recent years.
Murphy, the People Before Profit TD, said there are likely to be many evictions in the coming months, given the government’s decision to lift the evictions ban from 1 April.
“Presumably, a lot of those evictions will be legal. But some of them will be illegal,” he said.
That makes changes to policing urgent, he said. “We need this legislation in place, we need to clarify that guards should be able to prevent illegal evictions.”
Herrick, the executive director of ICCL, also said that the review of the policing policy around evictions is needed fast. “It has been deeply problematic for several years.”
In his November 2022 letter sent along with the report, Pádraig McGoldrick, head of disputes at the RTB, said it was available to discuss the report in more detail at the Department of Housing’s convenience.
“We look forward to the opportunity for the RTB to lead the delivery and implementation of proposals in order to further improve the response of protecting tenants in instances where illegal evictions are taking place,” he wrote.
A response from the department to the RTB on 20 February didn’t directly address the recommendation that gardaí be given more powers to arrest people involved in illegal evictions.
It gave more detailed responses to some other proposals, and broadly committed to supporting the work. “I wish to re-affirm for you that the Department intends to work with the RTB to progress the recommendations made, where it considers appropriate,” the letter says.
In the letter, the department did show enthusiasm for the idea of developing a role at the RTB for “professionally trained illegal eviction facilitators”.
The aim would be for these facilitators “to intervene at an early stage to prevent disputes escalating between parties”, a department official wrote, and noted it was something she knew the RTB was working on.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond to a media query asking for an update on which recommendations from the RTB’s report and letter, the department was moving to implement. Nor, which stage it is at in implementing them.
In the Dáil on 18 May, People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy asked Tánaiste Michael Martin about what had happened at Harrington Street.
“When the gardaí arrived, they refused to intervene, said it was a civil matter and refused even to take statements about the violence that had taken place,” said Murphy. “Is that acceptable?”
Said Martin: “The Government takes illegal evictions very seriously and is committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that tenants are treated fairly, respectfully and within the confines of what is legally permissible.”
“The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has written to the director of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, under his powers under the Residential Tenancies Acts to ensure this matter is investigated thoroughly as early as possible,” he said.
When O’Brien wrote to the RTB in August 2020, he had also asked the RTB to launch its own investigation into what had happened in the Berkeley Road case.
But the RTB didn’t have the powers to independently investigate illegal evictions under Part 7A of the Residential Tenancies Act, it said in its final report. It isn’t in the list of things it can look into by itself, it said.
In its letter on 20 February, the department official noted a possible downside to adding it to the list. In cases where the RTB investigates something itself, rather than a tenant taking a dispute, the tenant doesn’t get damages.
The Department of Housing hasn’t responded to a query as to what kind of investigation exactly the minister had asked into Harrington Street, given that the RTB has already said it doesn’t have the powers to investigate illegal evictions itself.
Clearly evictions should only take place once all other avenues have been exhausted and should be legal.
However the system is broken, the RTB appears to be an hopeless waste of everyone’s time and money. The courts are overwhelmed with cases and take far too long to deal with cases involving anti social behaviour and severe rent arrears. There is an inadequate supply of social housing for long term tenants. There is a clear need for decent short term lettings for people who work or study away from their usual place of residence but this type of accommodation is almost legislated out of existence. Our politicians seem to live in a world far apart from reality.
AS AN AGENT FOR LANDLORDS I WOULD HAVE NO PROBLEM WITH THAT AS LONG AS GARDAI ARE GIVEN THE SAME POWERS TO ARREST TENANTS WHO ARE IN THE PROPERTY ILLEGALLY.
YOU WONT SEE MURPHY AND FRIENDS AGREEING THAT????
Pat Gavin is absolutely right.
Some politicians find it easier to believe that all landlords are bad and all tenants are little angels.
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