Our client was married and lives with her children in a council house. The marriage irrevocably broke down as her husband was severely abusive, had amassed significant debts and had refused to pay his portion of the rent to the Council. Our client obtained a barring order against her ex-husband who was then ordered to leave the family home. The ex-husband’s rent arrears continued to amass over time and were still growing when our client first came to us. We negotiated with the Council and proved that the ex-husband was no longer living at the property. The Council agreed and then reduced his portion of rent to zero euro thus halting the rent arrears from further increasing.
Consent of both parties is needed to remove a joint tenant from a Council house and where it is not forthcoming the joint tenant must then access the Circuit Court for an order to remove the other tenant from the joint tenancy. Circuit Court applications are very costly and there is no legal aid available in respect of housing cases save in very narrow circumstances. This means the applicant must bear all the legal costs no matter what their income is. Our client could not afford to do this as she has to rear her family on social welfare and also had to repay the debts of her husband incurred in their joint names. Therefore this avenue to justice was blocked.
However, the Council actively negotiated with the ex-husband and he agreed to sign a tenancy surrender on consent and an agreement was reached on the arrears. Our client then became the sole tenant of her council home.
If the ex-husband had refused to surrender his tenancy, our client did not have the funds to access the Circuit Court and therefore would have been denied access to the courts to resolve this fundamental issue.This clearly shows the gap in the civil legal aid system.
In this area of law involving a person’s home, privacy and dignity, the threat and process of seeking possession for a local authority tenant is most often a hugely stressful and chaotic time. Without access to free legal aid, local authority tenants are, in the vast majority of cases, unable to access any legal representation due to the high costs involved. If housing issues are not included in the legal aid scheme, the State may be denying access to people on lower incomes to the legal system. The Special Rapporteur on Poverty in 2011, aware of the economic downturn in Ireland and budgetary cuts underway, recommended that Ireland provide this vital legal service to those living in poverty facing eviction proceedings and local authority issues. Similarly, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding observations on the third period report of Ireland in June 2015 recommended that “the state party ensure the provision of free legal aid in a wider range of areas, including through expanding the remit of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme.”
The State legal aid scheme should be expanded to include State legal aid in housing cases, particularly those involving eviction from social housing.
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