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Preventing and Resolving Housing Disputes outside of Court

‘Resolving Disputes outside of the Court System’ took place at the Inn of Court, Belfast on 15 February.  The event was set up in response to the Department for Communities’ Department’s newly published Private Rented Sector in Northern Ireland - Proposals for Change which is currently out for public consultation.  The consultation document includes a proposal to: “Examine the financial case for establishing an independent housing panel for Northern Ireland”.

Eilish O’Neill, from the Department for Communities, set the policy context for the afternoon’s discussion.   Ms O’Neill indicated the Department’s interest in learning from dispute resolution systems already in place in other key jurisdictions.

Department for Justice discusses dispute resolution in Northern Ireland

Jane Maguire told delegates about the Department for Justice’s experience of dispute resolution in Northern Ireland, explaining that it is often used in family disputes. Ms Maguire outlined the various benefits of dispute resolution, as opposed to taking a case through the Courts.

Ms Maguire also informed delegates of recent advances in dispute resolution from around the world, such as in the Netherlands and Canada, where telephone and online dispute resolution services are available, suggesting that this may be something to consider in the design of Northern Ireland’s model.

Scotland’s Housing and Property Chamber

Delegates heard how the Scottish model functions from Aileen Devanny, President of the Housing and Property Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland.  The Housing and Property Chamber offers relatively informal and flexible proceedings to help resolve housing issues between private tenants and landlords, and homeowners. 

Ms Devanny pointed to the benefits of offering specialist, accessible assistance to those who otherwise may not have access to representation.  There is no fee for any parties involved.  The Chamber is able to investigate and act:

  • when a landlord is not carrying out repairs;
  • when a tenant is not granting a landlord access to inspect or carry out works on the property;
  • when either party would like a determination of appropriate rent, and
  • when homeowners are experiencing disputes related to property management.

The Housing and Property Chamber can also offer mediation in appropriate cases.

Ms Devanny reported that feedback from landlords was positive, as they consider the work of the Chamber as improving the reputation of their sector and removing rogue landlords from the market.

Resolving housing disputes in the Republic of Ireland

Rosalind Carroll, Director of the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), explained how the RTB supports the Irish rental housing market to prevent and resolve disputes between landlords and tenants cheaply and speedily outside of the court system. 

Submitting a dispute to the RTB requires a fee of €15 for online submission and €25 for paper submission.  Upon receipt of a dispute, the RTB offers parties mediation or adjudication, before a tribunal hearing.  Mediation agreements are private, while Determination Orders as a result of adjudication and tribunals are public and published on the RTB’s website.  Ms Carroll told delegates how the use of mediation has increased substantially since the offer of telephone mediation was introduced.

Download RTB PowerPoint presentation.

Principles to inform a Northern Ireland dispute resolution system

Brian Thompson from University of Liverpool addressed delegates on his research on proportionate and appropriate dispute resolution.  He explained that there are four stages to successful dispute management:

  • Preventing disputes by better legislative design, information and guidance
  • Reducing dispute escalation through better communication for corrections & queries
  • Resolving disputes using appropriate and proportionate methods; and
  • Learning from disputes by seeking out insight and acting upon it.

Approaching disputes in this cyclical manner ensures that people are offered support at all stages of the process, i.e. from the start of a tenancy to the end.

Mr Thompson emphasised the importance of quality, independent advice in the prevention of disputes and pointed to the advice sector’s role in any Housing Panel for Northern Ireland. 

Download University of Liverpool PowerPoint presentation.

Download University of Liverpool handout.

Panel discussion on resolving housing disputes in Northern Ireland

Sean Timoney, Tenancy Deposit Scheme NI, and Sarah Corrigan from Housing Rights, joined the discussion, reflecting on their organisation’s experience of dispute resolution and the factors they believe should be considered when planning a housing panel for Northern Ireland. 

Mr Timoney was able to reflect on TDS NI’s experience of resolving disputes between landlords and tenants over the return of deposits at the end of a tenancy.  He advised that any plans for a housing panel in Northern Ireland must ensure that the system is cost-effective and efficient, with reasonable processing times.   

Sarah Corrigan holds the Northern Ireland Law Society’s professional qualification in legal mediation and is a Housing Adviser at Housing Rights.  Ms Corrigan emphasised the importance of a housing panel including panel members with a specialism in housing, due to the complexity of housing law and the overlap housing issues can have with a variety of other sectors, e.g. health, justice.  This would result in a better resolution for all parties involved.  Ms Corrigan stressed that a housing panel must be holistic, sustainable, accessible and respected to be a success in Northern Ireland.

Positive response to the development of a housing panel in Northern Ireland

The event revealed a keen interest in the development of a housing panel in Northern Ireland, with a determination to learn from other jurisdictions with similar systems in place.  There was a consensus that the key principles to consider in the panel’s development would be specialism, access, cost, efficiency, enforcement and education.

The consultation on the Department for Communities’ Proposals for Change for the Private Rented Sector in Northern Ireland closes on 3 April 2017.

Tagged In

Outside NI, Private Tenancies, Policy


Lizzie Scott

This article was written on 20 February 2017. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.