Part II of an SR investigation by Kenneth Roy
When a tribunal fixes rents which are considerably higher than the landlord wanted in the first place, and ignores the expert recommendations of local rent officers, something is wrong. When a landlord – a housing association – puts up a tenant’s rent by 28%, but the tribunal insists that it should rise by 95%, something is badly wrong. In yesterday’s SR, we made it clear that such cases are not at all unusual: that the Private Rented Housing Panel (PRHP) repeatedly imposes whopping hikes in rents of private property – often tenement flats occupied by the elderly – and that it often uses nothing more scientific than internet property ads as a prime source for its decisions.
We now have to ask – who on earth is making these decisions?
The disturbing answer is – ministerial appointees.
It might be worth considering whether the talent pool in Scotland is so tiny that the services of Aileen Devanny are required for so much public work or whether it might be possible to spread it around a little.
When SR first complained about the Private Rented Housing Panel a year ago, at that stage mainly on the grounds of its secretive ways, the president was a solicitor called Isabel Montgomery. She was replaced in June by Aileen Devanny, a lawyer with North Lanarkshire Council, who according to the Scottish government ‘holds a number of ministerial appointments’. She was until recently a member of the Parole Board for Scotland and continues as a member of the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland (about whose secretive ways SR also complained last year), and as a legal chairperson of the Scottish Charity Appeals Panel. All three of these bodies, as well as the Private Rented Housing Panel, have the status of tribunals.
For her work with the Mental Health Tribunal, Ms Devanny receives a daily fee of £430. Her work with the Scottish Charity Appeals Panel pays a daily rate of £325. At the Private Rented Housing Panel she is expected to work between five and eight days a month for a daily fee of £348 – equivalent to £1,740 a month if she works the minimum, £2,784 for all eight days. What she is paid by North Lanarkshire Council, where she is listed as principal solicitor in the property and commercial section, is unknown.
Ms Devanny is, then, an extremely busy person. But it might be worth considering whether the talent pool in Scotland is so tiny that the services of Aileen Devanny are required for so much public work or whether it might be possible to spread it about a little.
She is supported in her important duties at PRHP by eight part-time ‘chairmen’, as they are known, although three are women.
Jacqui Taylor, the chairman in the Dumbarton Road case where the rent was hiked by 95%, is a solicitor in Ayrshire with Taylor & Henderson whose senior partner, Martin McAllister, is a former president of the Law Society of Scotland and a part-time convener of the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland.
Ron Handley is a solicitor with Edinburgh City Council. Judith Lea may be the same Judith Lea who is clerk of yet another tribunal, the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal, although there she is known as Judith V Lea. Steven Walker, the PRHP chairman in the Vine Street case which set a precedent for the spectacular Dumbarton Road decision, is described as an advocate and barrister with a particular interest in natural resources and energy. He is a member of Tanfield Chambers, London.
Ewen Miller is a partner in a firm of Dundee solicitors, Thorntons, who say they are the ‘largest estate agents in Tayside – widely regarded as being the market leaders’. When I entered Mr Miller’s name in the firm’s internal search engine there were no results, but I am fairly satisfied that he is still around.
Anne McCamley is a legal member of the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland and is also a member of the committee of management of a landlord organisation, Hanover Housing Association, whose solicitor is the firm of T C Young of West Regent Street, Glasgow.
Which brings us to the two remaining chairmen, Jim Bauld and Andrew Cowan, both of T C Young of West Regent Street, Glasgow. Mr Bauld gives ‘clear and uncomplicated advice on complex and awkward issues’ concerned with housing, including ‘recovery of possession’ and ‘succession to tenancies’, while Mr Cowan advises on a variety of ‘day to day housing management issues, including tenancy agreements, allocations and anti-social behaviour’. Mr Cowan is also a part-time chairman of – yes, you’ve guessed – the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland.
Well, it is true that Scotland is a small country and that the Scottish establishment is no bigger than a village. But, again, is the talent pool so tiny that, of nine chairmen of the Private Rented Housing Panel, two of them have to come from the same firm of Glasgow solicitors?
There is another issue here. The firm T C Young is the legal adviser to other landlord organisations apart from the Hanover Housing Association; it is the solicitor to Govan Housing Association and Loretto Housing Association and, perhaps, to others we have not identified. No doubt in cases where these landlords are appealing rents to the Private Rented Housing Panel, Mr Bauld and Mr Cowan, being people of integrity, will declare an interest and not sit on the panel hearing the case. But the issue is this: where are the lawyers on the Private Rented Housing Panel whose principal interest is the defence of the rights and interests of tenants rather than landlords? The lack of balance on this tribunal is shocking.
Are they administering the law correctly? And, if they are, does the law not require to be looked at urgently, since it seems to be so hostile to justice?
So there it is: the ministerially-appointed panel that brought us Dumbarton Road and many other baffling outcomes. Each receives a fee of £316 a day; the president, as we have noted, rather more. It seems that all nine are lawyers of one kind or another. Perhaps that is as it should be: perhaps not. But two further questions arise. Are they administering the law correctly? And, if they are, does the law not require to be looked at urgently, since it seems to be so hostile to justice?
The tenant in Dumbarton Road, in the absence from her tenancy agreement of any provision for furniture, carpets or appliances, is allowed a deduction of £350 a year. The woman who adjudicated on her case earned only £34 less for a single day’s work.
A final chilling thought: the Private Rented Housing Panel, although it is ministerially appointed, claims to be ‘independent of the Scottish Government’. Where, then, is the public accountability for its bizarre decisions?
In SR next Tuesday, a former member of the panel will challenge its interpretation of the law. If you would like to comment on the issues raised by this SR investigation, email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.