Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 21 March 2024

Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community

Traveller Accommodation: Discussion (Resumed)

Ms Sin?ad Lucey:

Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, is grateful for this opportunity to appear before the Joint Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community. Our evidence and our written submission, which have been circulated to members, focus on access to justice, human rights and equality for Travellers in the context of housing and Traveller accommodation. Since 2017, FLAC has provided targeted and specialised legal services for members of the Traveller community. In early 2020, FLAC, with the national Traveller organisations, established a dedicated a Traveller legal service, supported by Community Foundation Ireland.

In each year since 2017, access to accommodation has emerged as the single most prevalent issue among people seeking legal assistance from FLAC’s targeted legal services for Travellers. During its first two full calendar years in operation, the Traveller legal service dealt with more than 100 housing queries. FLAC frequently represents Traveller families in cases concerning access to social housing, Traveller-specific accommodation and emergency accommodation, as well as cases concerning the adequacy of each of these forms of accommodation, and cases where Travellers living on the roadside are subject to evictions. FLAC believes that rights-based reform of housing law is needed to address the current housing and homelessness crisis, which disproportionately impacts members of the Traveller community. Beyond the introduction of a constitutional right to adequate housing, legislative reform is required to ensure housing rights are comprehensive, clear and enforceable.

When we last appeared before the joint committee in 2021, as has already been mentioned, FLAC proposed a number of reforms to housing and equality law which we view as necessary to vindicate and give effect to the accommodation rights of Travellers. We were pleased to see several of those recommendations reflected in the committee's ultimate report. However, it is disappointing there has been no meaningful legal changes in the areas of Traveller accommodation or equality law during the intervening period. This is despite the introduction of the Housing for All plan, the establishment of the Housing Commission, a Government commitment to a referendum on housing, the initiation of a comprehensive review of the equality legislation, and the development of a landmark Planning and Development Bill which is still going through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Similarly, a trend that runs through FLAC's current submission to the joint committee is the failure to implement the recommendations of the Traveller accommodation expert review, which was published five years ago, where those recommendations would require legislative reform. As a result, our current recommendations to the joint committee focus on steps we believe should be taken to expedite law reform in the areas of Traveller accommodation and equality law. We believe that the joint committee should engage with the programme board overseeing the implementation of the Traveller accommodation expert review and the Department of housing on a number issues, including reforms to the planning process for Traveller accommodation, including the creation of a bespoke process for the planning approval of such developments which permanently excludes them from the part 8 process; reviewing and amending eviction legislation in light of the McDonagh v. Clare County Council Supreme Court decision to ensure that, other than in the most exceptional of circumstances, a family home can never be interfered with in the absence of a merit-based determination involving a proportionality assessment by a court, accompanied with a requirement to offer alternative appropriate accommodation to homeless families; and the introduction of enforceable minimum standards for all forms for Traveller accommodation. The joint committee should also seek to ensure local connection tests are not applied by local authorities in considering requests for emergency accommodation and urge the Minister for housing to issue guidance on the proper exercise of discretion in applying such tests in the social housing context.

Similarly, guidance should be issued to local authorities and An Garda Síochána on the statutory vetting process of applicants for social housing. Ideally, the housing Acts should be amended to clarify the exact nature of the information which may be exchanged between local authorities and An Garda Síochána and the impact of previous convictions on present housing applications or allocations.

There are major weaknesses in Ireland’s equality legislation that limit its effectiveness in tackling discrimination and inequality in the context of social housing and Traveller accommodation. These include the fact that the prohibition of discrimination does not clearly apply to the general functions of the Department of housing, local authorities and An Garda Síochána, and an absence of an effective remedy for racial profiling and for discrimination that has a legislative basis. I refer to the criminal trespass legislation as an example. The joint committee should engage with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to ensure those issues are dealt with in the context of the current review of the equality Acts. That Department should also clarify the present status of the review and be asked to provide a specific timeline for its completion.

Measures to promote access to justice are vital to ensure housing and equality rights are effective and enforceable in practice. The establishment of the Legal Aid Board’s Minceir Traveller legal support service was a positive step towards achieving access to justice for Travellers. However, that service employs only one full-time solicitor who has a national remit. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near the level of resources necessary to tackle the huge amount of unmet legal need among the Traveller community. This should be a matter of concern for the joint committee, and we believe it should engage with the Legal Aid Board about the resourcing of its Traveller service.

My colleague Mr. Christopher Bowes and I are happy to address any questions that members of the committee may have. I thank the committee for its attention.


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