A hotel group owned by Supermac’s founder Pat McDonagh and his wife has been ordered to pay a Traveller family €22,000 in compensation for refusing them emergency homeless accommodation under a rule demanding guests produce a credit card.
The ruling has been described as an “important clarification” of housing rights – and marks the second time this year the hotel has been ordered to compensate members of the Travelling community for discriminating against them.
“To deny emergency accommodation for three nights only, to a family who were both homeless and members of a vulnerable minority at the margins of society . . . fell below the threshold of decency that reasonable people expect of the hospitality sector,” the adjudicator in the hearing wrote.
Bridget O'Reilly, her partner Phillip O'Neill and their two sons lodged complaints under the Equal Status Act against Atlantic Troy Ltd, trading as the Charleville Park Hotel on the Limerick Road, Charleville, Co Cork.
They alleged they were discriminated against both as members of the Travelling community and as a recipients of a housing assistance payment when they were refused accommodation on September 28th, 2020.
In four parallel decisions published on Wednesday morning, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) upheld their complaints against Atlantic Troy, which is owned by Supermac's founder Mr McDonagh and Una McDonagh through the fast food chain's primary holding company, Supermac's (Holdings) Ltd and trades under the SO Hotel brand.
Last month, Atlantic Troy was ordered to pay a total of €16,000 to three other Traveller women who were turned away from the Charleville Park Hotel under the same credit card policy.
An adjudication hearing in January heard Ms O'Reilly's family was deemed to be homeless by Cork County Council on September 25th, 2018.
They qualified for housing assistance and two days later a community welfare officer tried to book them into the Charleville Park Hotel for three nights but was told there was no room for the family.
Ms O’Reilly told the Commission she was able to book online in her partner’s name using a Visa Debit card for September 28th-30th, however, and the family went to check in accompanied by the community welfare officer, who brought a cheque to cover the bill.
The receptionist told them they needed a credit card in the same name as the person staying in the hotel and refused them accommodation, she said.
Ms O’Reilly was refused again the following day, she said, even after her solicitor spoke to the receptionist by phone and offered to pay on her own credit card.
The receptionist “insisted” the card “must be in the name of the person seeking accommodation”, Ms O’Reilly told the hearing.
She said she had gone to the bank and applied for a credit card but was informed they could not be issued to someone in receipt of social welfare.
Under cross-examination, she said the family had been accommodated at a hotel in Mallow, but that this was “too far” for the care and education needs of her children and the family eventually moved back to a caravan before being provided with a council house in January 2021.
Her partner Mr O’Neill said he was born and reared in Charleville and felt “humiliated” to be refused accommodation in his home town.
Solicitor Tom Kelly, appearing for the hotel group, said it “strenuously denies” discriminating against the family.
He said Ms O’Reilly was refused a booking in the first instance because her family could not comply with the credit card policy.
Secondly, he said: “The family were not looking for hotel accommodation. They were looking for a home.”
He said it was the responsibility of the local authority to provide a family home, not a hotel which he said was “not equipped” to provide for their needs without kitchen or laundry facilities.
He said the hotel’s previous experience providing emergency accommodation to members of the Travelling Community had been “disastrous” and “totally unworkable” as the two families in question had initially been sent for a short period but remained for a year.
Mr Kelly submitted photos purporting to show damage caused to the hotel by this previous Traveller group.
He said it cost €30,000 to repair and the local authority had refused to meet the bill.
The hotel’s general manager gave evidence that the hotel’s credit card policy had been set down by its owners, with “no flexibility” for the management to give exceptions – calling it “sacrosanct”.
He said neither he nor the hotel discriminates against Travellers and that he was aware of several who were members of the hotel’s leisure club.
Cross-examined by Sinéad Lucey, managing solicitor at the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC), who represented the family, the general manager accepted there were cases where credit cards were not necessary for a reservation, including corporate clients and regular customers.
In his judgment, adjudicating officer Thomas O’Driscoll wrote that the hotel had adopted “a strong pre-determined position not to allow those on Housing Assistance to be accommodated”.
He said the evidence of the hotel’s general manager was “inconsistent at times” on exactly how strict their policy was and that Ms O’Reilly was “more convincing”.
Mr O’Driscoll wrote that he was satisfied that the hotel had full knowledge that as a recipient of housing assistance Ms O’Reilly would not readily have a credit card and that insisting on one was a “device” to refuse equal treatment.
He also agreed with Ms Lucey’s suggestion the hotel’s decision to introduce the question of damage allegedly caused by other Travellers, “illustrates a state of mind on the part of the respondent that Travellers are identified as problematic”.
He found that on the balance of probabilities, membership of the Travelling community was a material factor in denying them accommodation.
He upheld the discrimination complaints on the ground of housing assistance and on the grounds of membership of the Travelling community.
“To deny emergency accommodation for three nights only, to a family who were both homeless and members of a vulnerable minority at the margins of society . . . fell below the threshold of decency that reasonable people expect of the hospitality sector.”
He said the facts demanded that redress be made at the higher end of the scale and directed the hotel group pay Ms O’Reilly €8,000 in compensation.
The same rulings were made in respect of the other three complainants’ cases.
Ms O’Reilly’s partner Mr O’Neill was awarded €8,000, and their sons €3,000 each.
The total sum awarded was €22,000.
Commenting on the rulings, the complainants’ counsel Ms Lucey said the ruling was “extremely significant” for her clients and also provided an “important clarification” of discrimination on the grounds of housing assistance under the Equal Status Acts.
“That ground is usually invoked in cases where landlords refuse to accept tenants in receipt of HAP [Housing Assistance Payment] or Rent Supplement payments,” she said. “Today’s decisions clarify that the ground also covers other forms of accommodation, including hotel accommodation where someone may require access to accommodation on a short-term emergency basis.”
Ms O’Reilly said she was “really proud” she and her family took the case.
“A hotel is there for everyone to use whether it is a wedding, a funeral or access to accommodation. It is so important that we challenge this kind of discrimination and stand up for our rights so other Travellers and our children in the future don’t have to face this experience again and again,” she said.