Wednesday, November 19, 2008

#108: Beast Of Burden

Funnily enough the worst part of attempting to evict disruptive tenants doesn’t come from physical eviction, nor does it come from any investigation, threat or physical actions. It comes from the one section that should be assisting us but instead throws up multiple roadblocks in the name of ‘fairness’. You might have guessed who I’m talking about – the Residential Tenancies Tribunal.

The RTT was set up to act as an independent body to oversee tenancy issues in any state, county or country where housing is available to rent. In effect they’re there to protect tenants from a landlords who might see fit to jack the rent up or sexually harass them. It’s also designed to protect landlords from tenants, where needed. It’ll step into disputes and adjudicate, but only if asked to. It has the power to make an order and see that the order is carried out. All orders are legally binding and the cases are overseen by all aspects of the legal fraternity, judges, barristers – you name it, it’s a good way for them to perform a community service, of which they do get paid for. The RTT also act as the holder of all bonds – if a landlord doesn’t lodge a bond with the RTT they can be taken to court and heavily fined, if caught, charged and prosecuted. Such is the power of the RTT.

Or so it would appear. In theory they are the be all and end all of tenancy. They are the ones who will always do the right thing and defend the rights of all from those who would seek to exploit, injure or damage. In practice they’re more often than not a toothless tiger who’s insistence upon outdated practices force it to protect and shield the guilty whilst harming the innocent. On alternate days I have either a lot of time for them or I curse them and the horses they ride into work upon.

Here’s an example. There’s a certain tenant who now has control over an entire street, I kid you not. As rent is paid on time and in full and no complaints are received – and more on that shortly – there’s nothing we can do. Not ‘not a lot we can do’, but actually nothing we can do. We're not completely ignorant or oblivious to what's happening though. I know what they’re doing, I know who they’re doing it to but nothing is reported due to a climate of fear that comes from being housed near these tenants. We’re talking extortion, threats of death and physical violence, threats of arson and property damage. We’re talking theft, abuse, assault, illegal drugs, vehicular offences – you name it, they’ve not only done it but they’re still doing it. And all the time we’re powerless because of one restriction that the RTT have seen fit to not only put in place but strongly adhere to – witnesses.

In a court of law witnesses are protected these days. A witness of a violent crime, such as serious assault, rape, attempted murder, harassment, stalking and the like, does not need to confront the perpetrator. They are free to give their evidence via video link-up and in the most extreme of cases allowances can be made to give evidence in-absentia. Not with the RTT. Believe it or not, and it is the truth, a victim of a tenancy crime has to stand up in the same room as the offender and deliver their side of the story with nothing but a few chairs separating them. It can be a dangerous practice and can also cause of a lot of hesitation when it comes to delivering valid evidence. Hence evictions are all but impossible with the most serious offenders as witnesses often are too frightened to appear before the tribunal.

In the case of the tenant above a great deal of time was spent explaining to other tenants, both public and private, about the workings of both us and the RTT. We have protocols to fulfil in order to evict, we need substantiation, but that isn’t always enough as we also have to produce witnesses before the RTT. The shortcut, as I’ve explained previously, is via what is known in this state as a Section 90, which allows for neighbouring tenants to bring eviction proceedings against other tenants. In this case several neighbours elected to go this route and began the proceedings. What they believed was the beginning of the end of a long nightmare was anything but, indeed it has the same effect as someone shooting an airgun at a bees nest and standing back expecting not to be stung. This is what happened. The Section 90 was filed with the RTT who duly, and correctly I might add, contacted both the residents who lodged the order and the tenant in question advising of a hearing time, date and location, the names of the people involved and the information required from both sides. Within a fortnight the order was withdrawn at the residents request. Why? The tenant in question contacted (and I use that term very loosely) each and every resident on the street and threatened them with death at the very least. Some residents were told that houses would be burnt down and a scorched earth policy strongly adhered to. Some were told of broken limbs that were forthcoming. Cars were damaged, houses broken into. That wasn’t the case of withdrawing of the complaint though. It was when a resident’s 3 year old daughter was threatened with abduction, rape and murder that the order was finally rescinded. The RTT don’t ask as to why an order is withdrawn, nor do they care. Once it’s out then it’s out. Any evidence provided is null and void and cannot be used in the future. That’s that. The residents were also told that if they contacted any outside agency, namely us and the police, then the threats would carried out post-haste. Thus complaints to us and the police ceased. We only discovered all of this as part of a follow-up, to much abuse from the (rightly) scared, threatened residents.

Why did all of this happen? The RTT operates under the clauses I’ve already outlined. Any information provided is given to all parties, no information can be entered anonymously. People have the right to question any evidence and witnesses, witnesses who must be present at the time of the hearing and be face-to-face with the offenders. The rooms are closed off but there is nothing in the way of real security to protect a person from being attacked by another, outside of the regulation security guard. It’s a Victorian way of thinking and approaching serious issues that more often than not involve serious crime. The best hope a person has is that the offender refuses to appear at the hearing because if a person does turn up the tribunal can, and often does, order what’s known as an order – which means the offending tenant has a certain amount of time to rectify the breach/behaviour and if they do, that is if no further complaints are received, then the RTT will dismiss the eviction notice. Again, any evidence entered at this point cannot be used in any future hearing, meaning that if the offender starts again then it’s all at point zero.

In fairness, in the most serious of cases, if the offender refuses to appear, or if the correct police presence is on hand, then the RTT can order an eviction with time frames ranging from 4 hours through to 28 days. These are exceptions to rules though, especially when it comes to private vs public housing. The most important aspect of this to remember is that any eviction is legally binding, thus if you have been given an order then at the given time legal authorities in the form of police, sheriffs department and/or relevant landlords will turn up to the property in question, physically evict anyone on the premises, change locks and, if the need arises, also board up any windows. If there’s any personal belongs left on the property then a time needs to be arranged via the RTT, police and/or landlords so that any relevant people can be present for any items to be removed. The landlord can refuse to engage at this point though meaning that the now ex-tenant will have to seek a court order to enable them to collect any personal items. Charges will be raised to dispose of any goods and cleaning and these can and will be charged back to the now ex-tenant. None of this is of any use whatsoever in the case that I’ve outlined.

So what’s the solution? I have no idea other than to strongly suggest that the RTT align themselves with the general magistrates court system and change the ways that evidence is allowed to be introduced. I’m all for providing evidence – without evidence you’d soon be evicted by a neighbour who just doesn’t like your car or the way you look with false complaints. Evidence, and strong evidence, needs to be maintained. Diaries outlining the times, dates, impact and results of disruptions is always a bonus. Times and outcomes of any police involvement in the form of report numbers and/or police reports is even more of a bonus. The more evidence that can be substantiated the better. And right here is where the wheels fall off the wagon.

The RTT needs to introduce a system whereby substantiation can be introduced without the need for a witness to directly face, and be questioned by, the offender. Video evidence, written impact reports, all of these and more could be introduced, especially if the allegation is one of violence, intimidation and threats. The need for a witness to be standing in the line of fire of an offender is draconian at best, dangerous at worst. The fact that the offender knows beforehand who is bringing action against them and is able to approach them without fear of prosecution is borderline insane. If you were charged with a serious assault and then approached a witness and attempted to intimidate them then you can bet that you’d be passing bloody stools on a regular basis, if you’re a male, for the next few years. You get the drift. As it stands once the order is entered the offender can then have a time frame in which they can run amok, approach and threaten a witness and force a stay of execution. I can fully understand the need for the RTT to offer the offender the right of reply and give them access to relevant information, but to also provide the offender with names and addresses, well that part of things I just can’t understand. Evidence, valid evidence, both needs and should be collected and provided, but a better system for the hearing of serious disruptions and evictions needs to be developed and put into place. Until that day comes about more and more people will continue to live in fear from their own neighbours and feel trapped, not able to properly address the issues at hand, too afraid to report incidents and threats to the relevant authorities and expecting others to handle the situation. As they then become more and more disillusioned by a system that continually fails to provide adequate protection their anger will be further be focused on those who want to assist but can’t.

Therein lies the quandary. There is no quick fix, there needs to be a complete and utter reassessment of the system and how it (often fails to) works. Perhaps when someone is seriously injured, sexually assaulted or actually killed due to a breakdown in this current eviction system and the result makes the front pages then an inquiry will be undertaken. When it happens, not if, but when as it is a certainty that it will, I’ll be first in line to provide my own evidence of how this current system has failed.