Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2008
EQUALITY OFFICER’S DECISIONS NO: DEC-S2008-046
(Represented by Kerry Travellers Development Project)
The complainant alleges that she was treated contrary to section 6(1)(c) on the grounds of her marital status, gender, race and membership of the Traveller community on 24 May 2006 by the respondent, Tralee Town Council. The complainant maintains that she was treated in a rude manner and refused assistance in relation to her accommodation needs. She further contends that she was subsequently victimised by the respondent.
Conclusions of the Equality Officer
The Equality Officer found no evidence to support that the complainant was treated any less favourably on the ground of her marital status, gender, ethnicity and/or because she is a Traveller. She found that the complainant has been treated in the same manner as any person would have been when presenting herself homeless to the respondent. The Equality Officer found that it is standard local authority practice to treat people who have voluntarily given up their local authority houses to live elsewhere and whom later wish to be reconsidered for housing to enter the housing list as new applicants. The Equality Officer found no evidence to support the claim that the respondent was not willing to consider the complainant for housing as a separated person.
Further, the Equality Officer was not presented with any evidence to support any claim that, subsequent to the complainant issuing the respondent with a complaint notification form, the complainant experienced any less favourable treatment from the respondent because of it.
The complainant has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination on the gender ground, the marital status ground, the ground of race or the Traveller community ground. The complaint of victimisation fails. Therefore, I find in favour of the respondent, Tralee Town Council.
A Complainant V Tralee Town Council
Case reference ES/2006/0155
Full Case Report
Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004 – Discrimination, section 3(1) – Gender ground, section 3(2)(a) - Marital status ground, section 3(2)(b) – Race ground, section 3(2)(h) - Traveller ground, section 3(2)(i) –– Provision of accommodation, section 6(1)(c) – Victimisation, section 3(2)(j) – Less favourable treatment - Access to housing
1. Delegation under the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004
1.1. A complainant referred a claim on 23 November 2006 to the Director of the Equality Tribunal under the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004. In accordance with her powers under section 75 of the Employment Equality Act, 1998, the Director then delegated the case to me, Tara Coogan, an Equality Officer, for investigation, hearing and decision and for the exercise of other relevant functions of the Director under part III of the Equal Status Acts. The investigation under section 25 began on 1 November 2007. A hearing was held in Tralee on 12 June 2008.
2.1. The dispute concerns a complaint by the complainant that she was treated contrary to section 6(1)(c) on the ground of her marital status, race and membership of the Traveller community on 24 May 2006 by Tralee Town Council (the respondent). The complainant alleges that when she visited the housing section to notify them about her eviction from a private rented house she was treated rudely by a member of staff and refused help She further contends that she was subsequently victimised by the respondent. At the beginning of the hearing, I also notified parties that I was also investigating the matter on the gender ground. The respondent was notified of the complaint 23 June 2006.
3. Case for the complainant
3.1. The complainant was evicted from her private rented accommodation by her landlord who wished to revamp his property in 2006. She maintains that the respondent was informed of the pending eviction and that the complainant notified the respondent of a number of vacant houses that would be suitable for her needs.
3.2. The complainant maintains that she was treated in a rude manner on 24 May 2006 by the respondent’s housing liaison officer when she presented herself at the respondent’s housing section to inform them that she was to be evicted from her private rented accommodation. Her notification form states that she considered her situation to be similar to that of a person/family who were rendered homeless because of a fire and that the respondent would have provided such a family with emergency accommodation. This less favourable treatment, she submits, is because she is a Traveller.
3.3. The complainant maintains that she was treated contrary to agreed established ground rules between the Travellers and respondent’s staff and contract workers. These rules were designed to afford “safe and effective provision of Town Council services to all residents living in named residential halting sites”. According to these rules, the respondent’s staff are to provide a private space for Travellers who wish to discuss their housing needs with the respondent. According to the complainant, the housing liaison officer refused to do so on this occasion.
3.4. The complaint of discrimination on the marital status ground arises from the fact that the complainant maintains that she has been treated less favourably because of her association with her estranged husband. The complainant stated in direct evidence that she had left her local authority housing because of the pressure her husband had placed on her. She maintains that her husband had insisted that they vacate the house they were living in and move to a residential halting site. The complainant stated that after a period of 5 months - during which her husband and she had not been getting on - she approached the respondent to request that they assign the house that they had vacated back to her (which she claims was still vacant). The respondent refused to allocate the house back to the complainant.
3.5. The complainant then sought private rented accommodation which she stated proved to be difficult. This, she maintains is because landlords do not want to rent to a member of the Traveller community. However, after a while, she secured a house for herself and her children. The house, she maintains, was not of a suitable standard as there are on-going health concerns with her family and the house was not in a great condition.
3.6. The complaint of victimisation arises from a letter written by the Town Clerk on 4 July 2006. The complainant maintains that by sending this letter to the Department of Education and Science, the respondent victimised the complainant in accordance with section 3(2)(j). The above letter, a response to the complainant’s notification form, contained information about the complainant’s housing history. This, the complainant’s advocate stated at the hearing, constitutes victimisation as the complainant’s private information was directed to a body not relevant to the complaint under the Equal Status Acts.
4. Case for the respondent
4.1. The respondent stated that the housing list currently consists of 1400 people looking for accommodation in Tralee. At the time of the complaint, the housing list had over 1200 or so applicants.
4.2. The respondent has housed the complainant in two local authority houses and in a residential halting site. The complainant has moved from each house voluntarily and the respondent stated in direct evidence that the respondent had strongly advised the complainant against the transfer to the residential halting site.
4.3. The complainant, who had been living in a new estate since 2001, had made a number of complaints about her neighbours (and they of her and her family) and had stated to the respondent that the family wanted to move to a named residential halting site. The respondent’s records show that the complainant’s advocate had also made representation on behalf of the complainant and her family on 18 November 2003 stating that the needs of the complainant and her family could only be met by Traveller specific accommodation, that is, a residential halting site. Consequently, a tenancy of a bay in a halting site was offered to the complainant and her family in April 2004. The respondent’s records show that difficulties arose between neighbours immediately. The respondent received a transfer request from the complainant in November 2005. The complainant was notified that until her husband resolved his anti-social behavioural problems the respondent could not make an offer of a transfer. This policy, in relation to anti-social behaviour, relates to the respondent’s duty of care towards all of its tenants and means that any person(s) looking to be housed or for a transfer must not have any serious convictions for a period of two years. The complainant and her husband vacated the bay in January 2006 and the complainant moved into non-local authority accommodation.
4.4. While there had been some complaints from neighbours, etc about the complainant and her family, the respondent has had no serious issues with the complainant herself while she was a tenant. It was acknowledged that most problems that had arisen were mainly linked with the complainant’s estranged husband. The respondent also pointed out that there were other Traveller families living in the named housing estate and that they had experienced no problems with their neighbours.
4.5. When the complainant approached the respondent about her housing situation, she was placed on the housing list. Her placement on that list is determined by the standard factors applied to all applicants. That is, family size, socio-economic status, health issues, the time spent waiting for accommodation, etc. As the complainant had been housed, and had since given up the accommodation provided to her, her application was accepted as a new application.
4.6. In relation to the alleged rude behaviour towards the complainant on 24 May 2006, the respondent stated that it is their policy to routinely refer homeless people to the Homeless Information Centre. This service was established in 2005 and is a partnership between Kerry County Council and the Health Service Executive. Its remit is to provide homeless services in the county. Therefore, the respondent stated that they were not in a position to provide any services for the complainant who presented herself as homeless. The respondent maintains that each individual case is treated under the circumstances that exist at a given time. The respondent maintains that it does not have a stock of vacant dwellings for emergency accommodation. Any person presenting themselves homeless to the offices of the respondent are referred to the Homeless Information Centre as per the County Wide Strategy on Homelessness.
4.7. The respondent presented an incident report dated 26 May 2006 at the hearing that indicated that the complainant had returned to the housing section with her husband, and that the husband had become aggressive and abusive with the respondent’s staff. This report also indicated that the complainant had attempted to diffuse the situation and to calm her husband down. There is no record of the meeting that took place between the housing liaison officer and the complainant on 24 May 2006 indicating that, as far as the respondent is concerned, nothing unusual took place that day.
4.8. The respondent denies that it has treated the complainant less favourably because of her gender, marital status, her race and/or because of her membership of the Traveller community. It also refutes any allegation of victimisation. The complainant is currently on the housing list and will be offered accommodation when it becomes available. The respondent denies that it has discriminated against the complainant in any way. The reason why the complainant finds herself in her current situation, the respondent stated, is because she has relinquished the accommodation that had been allocated to her.
4.9. The respondent maintains that it has gone above and beyond its duties in relation to satisfying the complainant’s family’s housing needs. The respondent claims that families have a duty themselves to protect their housing status. This family has been housed in 3 new developments within the last 11 years. They have vacated each property voluntarily.
5. Conclusion of the Equality Officer
5.1. Section 38A (1) of the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004 sets out the burden of proof which applies to claims of discrimination. It requires the complainant to establish, in the first instance, facts upon which she can rely in asserting that she suffered discriminatory treatment. It is only where such a prima facie case has been established that the onus shifts to the respondent to rebut the inference of discrimination raised.
5.2. In making my decision I have takencognisance of both oral and written submissions.
5.3. The complaint of discrimination arises from the fact that when the complainant approached the respondent’s housing section on 24 May 2006 she was refused assistance and was treated in a rude manner. She maintains that the reason why the respondent refused to help her and was rude to her was because she is a Traveller and/or because of her ethnicity. The complainant had previously been a tenant of the respondent.
5.4. While the housing liaison officer was not available for the hearing, the respondent stated that it is the policy of the housing section to refer all persons presenting themselves as homeless to the Homeless Information Centre. While the complainant was unable to explain what exactly was allegedly said to her by the housing liaison officer, I am satisfied after questioning the complainant that the reason for this perceived rudeness was because the respondent had stated that the complainant needed to present herself at the above service because there was nothing that they could do for her immediately. While I appreciate that the complainant was under a lot of strain and felt that the response she received from the respondent was not addressing her needs, I do not find that it was because of her Traveller status or because of her ethnicity. Indeed, the complainant stated under direct evidence that she would have been known in the office and that she had visited a number of times. No evidence was presented to me to indicate that she had any negative experiences in her dealings with the housing section prior or subsequent to the incident on 24 May 2006.
5.5. The complainant’s advocate stated that the housing liaison officer should have taken the complainant to a separate room to discuss the matter in private. While I appreciate that this is the recommended practice between the respondent and Travellers living in the respondent’s halting sites, I also note that the ground rules state: “If needed, please offer clients a private space in which to discuss business in the Town Council offices” - I accept that private meetings are arranged by appointment. I accept, on the balance of probabilities, the respondent’s argument that by turning up at the office without a prior appointment the complainant could not be treated privately.
5.6. The complainant stated that the reason why she had given up her standard local authority house was due to the pressure imposed on her by her husband. This does not come within the definition of marital status as defined in the Acts.
5.7. No evidence was presented to support the claim that the council had refused the complainant’s housing application as a separated person. Indeed, the respondent provided evidence that the complainant is currently on the housing list in her own right. Her allocation on the list is based on her time on the list, her specific circumstances and family size. I find that this is consistent with the standard treatment of any person(s) on such a list. Indeed, the Town Clerk makes it clear in a letter dated 4 July 2006 that: “named husband and the complainant or the complainant in her own will be considered for housing in conjunction with those on the new housing list.”
5.8. There is no evidence to support that the complainant was treated any less favourably on the ground of her marital status, gender, ethnicity or because she is a Traveller. It is clear that by choosing to move with her husband from the local authority house to the residential halting site, the complainant voluntarily gave up her house. She then left the residential halting site for personal reasons. I find that it is standard local authority practice to treat people who voluntarily give up their houses and who later wish to be considered for housing to enter the housing list as new applicants.
5.9. While I note that the complainant’s advocate outlined the difficulties that the complainant had experienced in attempting to obtain private housing, it is clear that the respondent cannot be held responsible for the difficulties she may be experiencing with other service providers.
5.10. Victimisation is defined in section 3(2)(j) as less favourable treatment that one-
i. has in good faith applied for any determination or redress provided for in part II or III,
ii. has attended as a witness before the Authority, the Director or a court in connection with any inquiry or proceedings under this Act,
iii. has given evidence in any criminal proceedings under this Act,
iv. has opposed by lawful means an act which is unlawful under this Act, or
v. has given notice of an intention to take any of the actions specified in subparagraphs (i) to (iv),
and the other has not. While I recommend that any respondent takes due care in responding to the correct address identified on the notification form, I note that the addressee of the said letter was the complainant’s advocate herself and that the complainant’s notification form (ES.1) specifically queries why the respondent had not responded to “two letters from the Department of Education, Visiting Teacher, asking you to respond to my situation as a matter of urgency?” While the ES. 1 is not signed by anyone, it has a contact address. I note that the Town Clerk sent a response to this address as well as to the Visiting Teacher referred to in the above question. While this act could be viewed as a contravention of section 36(2), I accept that the Town Clerk understood the question as an instruction to reply to the named individual.
5.11. No evidence was presented to me to support any claim that, subsequent to this letter been sent to the Department of Education and Science, the complainant experienced any less favourable treatment by the respondent. Therefore, having examined all the facts presented to me, the complaint of victimisation fails.
5.12. At the beginning of the hearing I had put both parties under notice that I may also consider the complaint from a gender perspective. Having considered all the facts pertaining to this complaint, I find that there is no evidence of discrimination on the gender ground.
The complainant has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination on the Traveller community ground, the race ground, the gender ground and the marital status ground. The complaint of victimisation fails. Therefore, I find in favour of the respondent, Tralee Town Council.
31 July 2008