Early in 2011, it came to our attention that legal residents from outside of Europe were being routinely refused access to social housing. We identified a pattern of widespread discrimination eminating from a discriminatory circular that had been issued to Local Authorities charged with assessing applications for Social Protection. Throughout 2011, we worked in various ways to challenge it. In January 2012, we were delighted to learn that the Department of the Environment had issued revised – and much fairer – guidelines to the Local Authorities.
Read more about access to Social Housing for non-EEA nationals on our website under Know your Rights, here. If you have any questions about your eligibility for social housing – or if you are told that you are not eligible for social housing – please contact our Free Legal Service.
If you are interested in how this successful advocacy campaign unfolded, read on…
When users of our Free Legal Service began telling us that they had been informed that they were not eligible for social housing, and that they need not apply, we were confused. We examined the legislation, and were at a loss to understand the grounds on which some of these people were being refused. We urged them to return to the Local Authority, and to insist that they wished to apply and to have their applications assessed. We assisted a couple of applicants in making their applications, and made a few phone calls to managers of Local Authority offices, who assured us that they would accept and assess the applications.
When the first written refusal was presented to us at the Service, we were stunned to discover that the applicant had been refused on the basis that she had not held a residency permission allowing her to work freely in Ireland for the past five years. This was an applicant who had held a work permit in Ireland for years – that is to say, she had only had permission to work for one employer. Her husband and child had long since been granted permission to join her here, and she had some two years previously graduated to a residency permission that allowed her to work freely in Ireland (called “Stamp 4”). We scoured the legislation, and were convinced that the supposed requirement was not to be found in any law of the State. We investigated a bit further, and discovered that the requirement was contained in a Circular that had been sent from the Department of the Environment to the Local Authorities, to guide them in assessing applications for social housing. The local offices were only doing what they were told. Enquiries with colleagues around the country revealed that we were dealing with a national problem.
We knew that the faulty rule stated in the Circular would have to be revoked if the matter came before a High Court Judge. Alternatively of course, the then Minister, Willie Penrose, might be prevailed upon to correct the mistake. In order to make our contact with the Minister more effective, we wrote to him jointly with some of the other organisations we had been in touch with, including Threshold and Focus Ireland. Maybe this way, he would take us seriously, and the applicants and the State would be spared the cost and inconvenience of a High Court application.
In the meantime we needed between us, to find a case that was suitable to take to court, and a solicitor and a barrister to take it there. We began by posting an information note on our website and in our newsletter, pointing out to people who had been refused the right to apply that they should insist on making an application and on receiving a formal refusal, and telling them that we believed that the supposed regulation was incorrect.
Next we asked PILA, the Public Interest Law Alliance, to get an Opinion for us from an expert on housing law. PILA came up trumps, with an Opinion from a barrister, Neil Maddox, who literally wrote the book on housing law in Ireland (Housing Authority Law, Roundhall, 2010). Mr. Maddox confirmed that the rule was, indeed, “ultra vires” or beyond the scope of the legislation. The Department had essentially drafted its own “law”, and it did not have the power to do so. In addition, Mr. Maddox pointed out that the effect of the rule was discriminatory and in all probability unconstitutional.
Going to court is a serious matter – we did not want to encourage any client who was reluctant to to so to take on the risk of losing and being fixed with the State’s costs. In addition, cases can take up to two years to come before a judge. In the event, a small number of cases from elsewhere in Ireland were lodged in the High Court.
In the meantime, we focused on drawing media attention to the issue, and on maintaining contact with the Minister’s office. Jennife Hough of the Irish Examiner reponded to our contact with interest, and she commenced making her own inquiries with the Department. On the 6th of December 2011, we were delighted to read that “guidance regarding access to social housing by non-Irish nationals was under review and updated rules would be issued to local authorities shortly,” in an article by Jennifer in the Irish Examiner: “Nasc: Non-EU Workers kept off housing list.”
When we returned to work after the Christmas break, we were delighted to have received revised guidelines regarding social housing eligibility assessment for non-Irish nationals from the Department of the Environment. The Department had issued its new circular to the staff of the local authorities charged with administering and assessing applications for social housing all around Ireland. The new rules are much, much, fairer that those that were in place before, and we very strongly welcomed the changes.
The service user who was mentioned in our case study was eligible under the new criteria, so she was absolutely delighted. The small number of judicial review applications that had been lodged became moot, as the applicants were be eligible under the revised guidelines for assessment.
What a great way to start 2012!
We are particularly grateful to the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA) for their assistance with this campaign. PILA works with NGOs and community organisations to increase their awareness of and capacity to use the law. They helped us to access the voluntary assistance of housing law expert Neil Maddox BL, whose expert opinion helped us to convince Jennifer Hough in the Irish Examiner that this was a story worth reporting. We think that made all the difference.
Related Links and Resources
- Read our guide to social housing for non-EEA nationals here.
- S.I. No. 84/2011 — Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011
- Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009