Because of an internal system, landlords and tenants who have won tribunal cases at the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) have sometimes had their cases recorded as lost, according to a report by consultants Grant Thornton.
It is one of several issues flagged in a review of the dispute resolution process, as managed by the RTB and its outsourced helper, Capita.
“A particular issue was highlighted relating to appeal cases reverting from approved to rejected status,” says the report, referring to the board’s findings at the tribunal stage.
Staff at the RTB had to work manually to re-apply the approval status to those cases but the interviewee feared they may miss some, says the report.
Neither the spokesperson for the RTB nor the Department of Housing directly answered questions as to whether this has now been rectified.
The review, which is dated September 2023, also noted that there is a large queue of cases at the rental regulator – and predicted based on trends that this was going to grow.
A spokesperson for the RTB said: “This review has been finalised and is with the Residential Tenancies Board Executive Leadership Team to review its recommendations.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said: “The hearing of disputes is an operational matter for the RTB.”
Following recommendations in the RTB Workforce Plan (2018-2021), the RTB received sanction for significant additional staff during that period, said the spokesperson.
“The Department continues to work with the RTB to ensure it is sufficiently resourced to deliver on its mandate,” he said.
A growing backlog?
When a tenant or landlord files a dispute with the RTB, it goes through an assessment process outsourced to the company Capita.
The case is then channelled onwards, either as a mediation or an adjudication – and if either party appeals the adjudication decision, the case is heard by a tribunal.
An RTB spokesperson said in October 2023 that the average wait time for that first stage of an assessment was around two weeks. But the report says longer.
Capita’s agreement with the RTB sets a turnaround time of a week, but they were taking six or seven weeks to be assessed, the Grant Thornton report says.
The spokesperson for the RTB didn’t respond directly to questions about whether and how it resolved that issue.
The backlog is because staff were redeployed “to respond to issues the public were raising with the RTB’s annual registration process online last year”, the report says.
In May 2023, there were 1,548 cases waiting for assessment, the report says – predicting that it would grow to 2,208 cases by December 2023.
The report predicted that the queue for mediation and adjudication cases would fall over the second half of this year, but the caseload queue for tribunals and assessments, would grow.
According to an RTB spokesperson, the average waiting time for a tribunal in 2022 was 31 weeks, and in 2021 it was around 33 weeks.
The impact of delays
RTB staff referenced in the report said they were concerned about the impact of delays in getting a tribunal hearing. “For example, the accumulation of rent arrears while an appeal is pending.”
Delays can also leave tenants and landlords living longer in stressful situations. Tenant Joe Kennedy had to attend three hearings to get his deposit back over 16 months, from June 2021 to October 2022.
That impacted him, he said. “The RTB is not fit for purpose because of the length of time it took.”
It was a straightforward case, so he doesn’t think it should have ended up with three separate hearings, two adjudications and a tribunal, which all relied on the same evidence, he says.
Kennedy says he thinks that deposits should be held by an independent agency like they are in the UK. “We’re in a lucky position. But some people are really relying on getting their deposits back.”
Tenants may bank on getting their deposits back, to cover a deposit on a new place or for costs such as furniture.
But he says he found the whole thing really stressful.
Kennedy filed his case in June 2021. The first adjudication hearing was four months later, in October 2021. He won, but his former landlord appealed the decision.
In the meanwhile, the landlord also lodged a separate case for alleged damages, which he said the tenants had done to the property. A second determination order was issued in October 2022.
Its unclear why it wasn’t all dealt with in the single case. Alleged damages were the reason for keeping the deposit.
Neither the Department of Housing spokesperson or the RTB responded to queries about this, as to whether this should have taken place within one hearing.
Kennedy got his deposit back in the end, but he says that the whole process was extremely stressful and unnecessarily protracted. “It’s so unfair,” he said.
Beyond the backlog
Customer service at the RTB is supplied by Capita, a business solutions company.
At the time the research behind the report was done, the average wait time for a caller trying to phone the RTB was 45 minutes.
It had since fallen to three minutes according to Capita, the report says. Three weeks ago, a call took about 20 minutes to get through.
In the report, an RTB staff member raised concerns about the impact of high staff turnover at Capita on the assessment process, that they have been sent on cases that hadn’t been properly assessed, among other technical difficulties that made the assessment process harder.
When it came to the process for dealing with illegal evictions, RTB staff also raised concerns that high turnover meant training for Capita staff wasn’t frequent enough.
Also, if Capita staff note down contact information for a letting agency rather than a landlord, that could result in data breaches, the report says.
An interviewee also noted shortcomings among adjudicators , those appointed to RTB panels to hear and rule on cases at the adjudication stage. “Some of the adjudicators do not return their reports on time, while others repeatedly have errors in their reports,” the report says.
Tribunal appeals are mostly dealt with internally by the RTB.
An interviewee in the Grant Thorntown report spoke about tribunals and “the current resourcing levels being insufficient to meet demand and the misalignment with the RTB Customer Charter”.
The interviewee “was concerned that training needs are not being met and that there might be risk of a data breach occurring due to the high workload across the team”, says the report.
There was a lack of written policies and procedures, it also found. The interviewee “noted there is a lack of policy and procedural documentation capturing the work undertaken by the team and there is concern that important knowledge and information could be lost upon staff departure from the organisation or team”.