Belfast landlords must give out-of-hours contact for anti-social behaviour, judge rules

Police on patrol in the Holyland area of Belfast.

Private landlords in Belfast are lawfully required to provide an emergency out-of-hours contact number for dealing with anti-social behaviour, the High Court has ruled.

A judge rejected claims they have been unreasonably put on call round-the-clock due to the new condition introduced by Belfast City Council as part of efforts to tackle nuisance residents in shared rental accommodation.

Citing the well-publicised problems in areas such as the Holyland, Mr Justice Scoffield held that the authority was seeking to utilise any influence agents have over students or other types of tenants.

He said: “There may be less of an element of bravado involved in dealing with the landlord than there may be dealing with police or council officers, for a variety of reasons.”

The condition was challenged by the Landlords Association for Northern Ireland (LANI).

Proceedings centred on the council’s decision in December 2020 to amend the terms of licences for Houses in Multiple Occupancy (HMOs).

Private landlords and management agents must now provide an out-of-hours contact number for all their properties shared by at least three people from different households in the Belfast area.

The court heard regular disturbances in the Holyland area, heavily populated by students, was one "lightning rod" associated with the step taken.

Lawyers for LANI argued that it has placed landlords on call “24/7, 365 days a year”.

They claim it is an impracticable obligation for members with up to 100 tenants on their books, and that failure to comply could lead to prosecution or being taken off the HMO licence register.

It was further contended that landlords contacted in the middle of the night would be able to do nothing more than could be achieved during office hours.

But according to Mr Justice Scoffield there is no expectation of action being taken in the middle of the night to terminate leases or serve notices to quit.

Instead, he said, the council is seeking to “leverage” any available influence over nuisance residents.

“A landlord, or agent who manages the property, may have an ongoing and/or personal relationship with the tenants (and/or, in the case of student tenants, their parents) which might make the tenants more amenable to persuasion to moderate their behaviour at the landlord or agent’s behest,” the judge stated.

“In some cases, the intervention of the landlord may be effective when engagement with council or police officers has not been.”

Dismissing LANI’s application for judicial review, he confirmed: “Requiring a landlord or agent to be available to engage in an emergency situation to discuss what assistance, if any, they are willing and able to give does not appear to me to be ultra vires the Council’s powers.”

Recently, the Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced that a new Intervention Officer would be appointed in the area to help deal with anti-social behaviour.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey met with residents Brid Ruddy and Catriona Goldhammers to announce the new investment. Credit: Department for Communities

A new alleyway improvement scheme has also been launched to provide better security for residents in the area.