Thursday, 29 April 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Private Rented Accommodation
I am mindful that I have come into the Chamber to talk about illegal evictions. While the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is most definitely tasked with the reduction in the number of evictions generally, and we will try to get through it today, this might be more of an issue for the Department of Justice. That is the Department I had in mind when I tabled this matter.
It is very much on the record of this Dáil that I have more general thoughts on the need for evictions but what I want to talk about now is the way in which they are carried out. In the past year or so in my constituency, there have been evictions on Slaney Road, Summerhill Parade, Berkeley Road and St. Joseph's Place. There are two issues that come up in these evictions, which have a huge impact on our community in Dublin Central. One is the occasional presence of masked third parties who sometimes act as supporters to the landlord and sometimes as enforcement agents. To be clear, this is an issue that has gone on much longer than the Covid-19 crisis. The covering of faces is not necessarily a Covid measure but one assumes it is to either obscure somebody's identity or is an act of intimidation. The second issue is the engagement of An Garda Síochána with the issue of evictions more generally.
I point out to the Minister of State that we tend to think of evictions as an issue between two parties and a commercial transaction but when somebody is being removed from their home, including his or her possessions, there is a balance of power that lies with the landlord. That tenant is in a vulnerable position. He or she deserves the full protection of the law and the support of An Garda Síochána.
I welcome the Private Security Services (Amendment) Bill that was debated in the House earlier. That will afford enforcement agents at least the same kind of oversight that we have for nightclub bouncers and night watch security men, which is very welcome. Concerns remain around the unpaid friends and supporters of landlords who might arrive at evictions that we have witnessed happening in Dublin Central. That remains uncovered by this legislation and not really addressed.
An Garda Síochána would say that the matter of an eviction is a civil matter between two parties and that it has no role to play. To enter somebody's home forcefully, the place where they live, sometimes with children present, remove his or her belongings physically and sometimes damage those belongings in that process is very serious action to take. At a minimum, I propose that An Garda Síochána should ensure that illegal evictions are not being carried out.
There was an incident on Berkeley Road last August which gave rise to a review of the Garda conduct during the incident. I would very much like to know what that review found. The most recent eviction in Dublin Central was on St. Joseph's Place and it was during the Covid restrictions and the moratorium on evictions. That resulted in a stand-off involving the tenant, the landlord, the landlord's eviction agents and the supporters of the tenants that lasted for seven hours. Thankfully, a senior Garda had the diplomacy skills and the knowledge to de-escalate the situation and the tenant was able to stay in the accommodation.
I ask the Minister of State - he might work with the Minister for Justice on this - to provide procedures within An Garda Síochána around de-escalating those stand-offs of the kind to which I refer, put in place procedures that recognise the human element at play during evictions and the real issue around the illegal carrying out of evictions where gardaí should have a role to play. Procedures should also be put in place to protect vulnerable tenants.
I agree. In terms of the effectiveness of these questions, it would be useful to have the question directed at the particular Department. We will give a response in terms of the responsibilities and the role of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, but I acknowledge the fact that this is a question that is better directed at the Department of Justice.
The RTB was established as an independent statutory body under the Residential Tenancies Act of 2004 to operate a national tenancy registration system and facilitate the resolution of disputes between landlords and tenants. The RTB takes the matter of illegal eviction very seriously because such evictions can potentially leave tenants homeless. The RTB actively intervenes when requests for supports are received in the context of illegal evictions and its interventions are usually successful. While a request for tenant support can be in respect of access to property and return of belongings the focus of the RTB's intervention is on the maintenance of the tenancy. The RTB engages with landlords to advise on the serious consequences of illegal evictions, including the possibility of being directed to allow the tenant re-entry into the dwelling and the possibility of being required to pay substantial damages if a dispute case is referred by the tenant to the RTB for resolution.
As the RTB has replaced the courts in residential tenancy dispute resolution it has a responsibility towards all parties to ensure that a fair hearing is conducted and that each party will have the opportunity to set out their case. Any RTB decision is based on the facts and evidence in the case. Where a landlord is determined, under an RTB dispute resolution process, to have engaged in an illegal eviction the landlord may be directed to allow the tenant to re-enter the dwelling. Furthermore, a landlord may also be required to pay substantial damages of up to €20,000, depending on the circumstances of the case.
In the vast majority of cases, the immediate threat of eviction is abated through RTB intervention and dispute resolution cases. Where a resolution cannot be found and a tenant has been forcibly removed from a property, the RTB may seek a court injunction under section 189 of the Residential Tenancies Acts to have a tenant reinstated until a dispute resolution case is concluded.
The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 provides the RTB with enhanced powers of investigation and sanction regarding improper conduct by a landlord. A sanction of up to €30,000 may be imposed on a landlord, if warranted. Significantly, investigations can now be triggered by the RTB in its own right rather than depending on a complaint or a referral for dispute resolution from the tenant.
The programme for Government contains a commitment in respect of improving the security of tenure for tenants through increased RTB investigation and enforcement activity, and appropriate resources are available for this function. The RTB is examining the issue of illegal evictions and will be submitting a report to me this quarter. Any further action that is warranted will be progressed. The various acts relating to residential tenancy are kept under constant review and any necessary legislative refinement in this area will be achieved. I hope that goes in some way towards responding to the Deputy's question. It certainly outlines a case for the RTB to have a strong role, although I recognise the question is more about the role of the Garda in addressing illegal evictions.
I thank the Minister of State. That was very helpful. I am very happy to hear that the RTB is considering the issue of illegal evictions and reporting to the Minister of State on it. This is very useful. I realise the matter is dealt with in the programme for Government. I am delighted to hear about it.
What the RTB can do is very much about process and will be after the fact. What we see happening on the streets in my constituency is people turning up on a particular day and asking tenants to leave their homes. While I hope and am sure that the RTB will have a robust answer to the question of how we deal with the illegal evictions, I believe An Garda needs proper procedures for engaging with evictions in general to ensure they are carried out legally on the given day. It is as much about An Garda having clarity on its role as it is about the tenant having clarity. It is incredibly difficult for gardaí to engage in positive community policing the day after being involved in the kinds of evictions in question when the ramifications of the incidents I have described are so far-reaching. I thank the Minister of State for his answer and I appreciate his work on this.
The Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2021 provide strong protections regarding the lawful termination of tenancies. In any notice of termination served after six months of a tenancy commencement, a landlord must state a reason for the termination in accordance with the limited allowable grounds under the legislation. The legislation also provides for specific notices periods to be served before the notice of termination becomes effective. The longer the tenancy, the longer the notice period. In some cases, these notice periods were more than doubled under the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019. For example, a tenant who lives in a dwelling under tenancy between three and seven years is entitled to 180 days' termination notice, or almost half a year, except in limited circumstances, such as where antisocial behaviour occurs. A tenant in residence for eight or more years is entitled to 224 days' notice.
A tenant can refer a case of unlawful eviction to the RTB for dispute resolution and reinstatement of a tenancy, and damages of up to €20,000 can be ordered. In extreme cases, the RTB can seek a court injunction where unlawful eviction has occurred and no other effective intervention or resolution is available. Enhanced powers of investigation and sanctions were provided to the RTB in July 2019, and appropriate resources have been provided. The Deputy will acknowledge that these are significant deterrents and should help in addressing the issue of illegal evictions. I ask that the other aspects of the question she has raised this evening be referred directly to the Department of Justice.