A landlord couple have been ordered to pay their former tenant €7,500 for refusing to accept Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and allegedly threatening to evict his family when he started an official complaint.
David Paul Smith made a complaint under the Equal Status Act against his former landlords, Martin and Hillary Shields of Ard Ross Park, Crossmaglen, Newry, Co Down, on the grounds of a refusal to accept HAP.
He told the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) earlier this month he went into debt trying to meet rental payments on the property in Monaghan town without the aid of the state payment he was entitled to.
It was “the most amount of stress in my life”, he told a WRC adjudication hearing earlier this month. “I feel like people like that shouldn’t be allowed to get away with treating tenants like that.”
Mr Smith said his family went into arrears on their utility bills to make sure they kept their tenancy, paying €680 a month when they were entitled to a grant paying €530 of that sum.
“Every week trying to come up with the rent. Everything else was falling behind, the bills and everything.”
Owen Duggan from the housing charity Threshold, representing the complainant, told the hearing that Mr Smith first asked about HAP when he moved into the property with his partner and eldest child in October 2017.
He submitted there was no contemporary record of this but said Mr Smith made further requests on numerous occasions until he sent a text on July 28th, 2020, to Hillary Shields, when it was refused.
The couple “explicitly stated that they would not accept HAP on behalf of the tenant,” he said.
Mr Duggan submitted a thread of text messages sent between Mr Smith and Mrs Shields between July 28th and 29th, 2020, discussing the question of HAP.
One of the replies read: “You were told when you moved in that he [Mr Shields] didn’t accept HAP.”
He said his client informed Mrs Shields that he was entitled to claim HAP and told her he had been advised to send a written notice of discrimination under the Equal Status Act if they did not comply.
“Mrs Shields implicitly threatened the tenant’s tenancy by stating she would be ‘going to move into the house’ if Mr Smith continued in this matter, further compounding Mr Smith’s precarious situation regarding his tenancy,” Mr Duggan submitted.
He said it was his client’s submission that the text messages went beyond a contravention of the Equal Status Act and “victimised the tenant by further seeking to punish him and his family with an eviction should they push the matter any further and pursue the matter through the WRC”.
Mr and Mrs Shields did not attend the hearing to defend the complaint against them.
“I am satisfied having reviewed the file and verified the address that they were aware of the hearing date but chose not to attend or seek an adjournment,” adjudicating officer Breiffni O’Neill said in his decision.
Mr O’Neill said the refusal to take HAP had a “real and tangible effect”, costing the complainant €5,687 from the day he first asked to the end of his tenancy.
“I consider this discrimination to be at the more serious end of the scale given that there was a continuing contravention since 2017,” Mr O’Neill said.
He said he accepted the complainant had endured “considerable stress” and gone into arrears on his utility bills because he was unable to avail of the HAP.
However, he said he had to cut off the claim at September 2020, even though the complainant had alleged a continuing breach up to the time he left the property in May 2021, because he was bound by law not to consider the complaint beyond the date it was made.
During the hearing, Mr Duggan said this was “quite unsatisfactory” as his client was no longer permitted to make a supplementary complaint because of the length of time it had taken the WRC to list the matter for hearing.
Mr O'Neill ordered Martin and Hilary Shields to pay Mr Smith €7,500 "having regard to the seriousness of the discrimination and all the effects of same".