A judge has ordered a landlord to pay compensation of €1,000 to a potential tenant who was rejected after saying he was qualified for the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).
In what is believed to have been the first case of its type to be decided by the Circuit Court, the landlord failed in an appeal against a finding made by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), which also deals with non-work related equality complaints.
The president of the court, Judge Raymond Groarke, upheld the WRC finding against landlord Rosaleen Prendergast.
However, he reduced by half the €2,000 in compensation the WRC ordered she should pay.
Judge Groarke said that while discrimination occurred, he did not believe it was intentional.
The WRC complaint was taken last year by prospective tenant Damien Keogh, who is currently living in a hostel.
After seeing a flat in Kilnamanagh, Tallaght advertised on Daft.ie, he sent an email enquiring about its availability. The email said he had been passed for HAP, a social housing support for people who have a long-term housing need.
Under equality legislation, a landlord cannot refuse to rent someone accommodation because they are getting a social welfare payment.
But Mr Keogh, who was represented in the case by legal advice charity Flac, told Dublin Circuit Civil Court he received an emailed response stating: “Sorry, we do not accept HAP at the minute”.
The court heard Ms Prendergast, a widow, had an extension on the side of her house and sought to rent out a small apartment in it for the first time last year.
She did not dispute the contents of the email sent to Mr Keogh. But she told the court the email response, sent by her daughter Samantha, had been “a mistake”.
“We didn’t do this on purpose. We didn’t know about the HAP. We didn’t mean to insult the fellow,” she said.
Samantha Prendergast gave evidence that at the time she did not realise her mother did not need to be registered before she could offer the unit to someone on HAP.
She said she was inundated with emails in response to the advert and that subsequently they decided to get an estate agent to handle queries.
Judge Groarke said he was not satisfied the intention of the Prendergasts was to discriminate against Mr Keogh or anybody else receiving HAP.
He observed it was the first time they had rented the property and there was “a quagmire of legislation”, which they were not familiar with.
“But unfortunately the law says that people are presumed to know the law and must act within the law whether they know what it is or not,” the judge said.
“I think that this was probably a human error, a human mistake on the part of the Prendergasts and they had no particular intention to treat anybody in a discriminatory fashion,” he said.
“I don’t think there was any mala fides on their part. I don’t think they are that kind of people. However, there was discrimination,” the judge added.
However, he halved the WRC award to €1,000, saying the original award was “too high”.
The judge also awarded Mr Keogh legal costs of €1,000.
Mr Keogh welcomed the decision and urged more people to report landlords who refuse to take tenants on HAP.
“This was my chance to get out of homelessness. The apartment was like heaven compared to my current living conditions,” he said.
Flac chief executive Eilis Barry also welcomed the outcome of the appeal.
“It is important that this new legislative provision which protects people in receipt of the HAP payment is found to be effective,” she said.
“Landlords need to be aware of this important protection and ensure that they do not discriminate against potential and existing tenants in receipt of HAP”.
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