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County council spent €400,000 contesting equality complaints

Clare County Council’s expenditure of €400,000 on legal fees contesting Equality Act complaints, has sparked disputed claims as to who is to blame for accruing this spending.
Traveller representative Heather Rosen came under fire from councillors when the executive revealed she lodged an estimated 1,200 complaints of alleged discrimination to the Equality Council against the council from 2003 to 2006.
However, Ms Rosen hit back, criticising the council for adopting the legal route at all times, instead of using mediation and other measures she claimed would have saved the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of Euro.
She also claimed the council’s failure to provide adequate facilities for Travellers resulted in a large number of the complaints against the authority.
County manager, Tom Coughlan, admitted the €400,000 legal bill doesn’t include the cost of paying staff to deal with these complaints or current High Court proceedings reviewing the workings of the Equality Tribunal.
The Clare Champion has also learned that the council has taken legal action against Ms Rosen to recover €7,400 in costs, awarded against her by the Equality Tribunal for alleged obstruction of the process. This case is due for mention at next Monday’s sitting of Ennis Circuit Court.
Councillor Brian Meaney highlighted the high number of complaints at a council meeting on Monday, asking if they could be stopped, as they “seemed to be vexatious”.
“I am aware of the council work done in relation to Traveller accommodation. I chaired a committee that bent over backwards to house Travellers.
“Significant costs have been accrued by the council and I believe this matter should be pursued to ensure this cost is eliminated,” he said.
Councillor Tommy Brennan proposed the council should pursue Ms Rosen for the costs owed, to prevent further complaints.
Director of services, Bernadette Kinsella, stated 34 written complaints about alleged discrimination have been made by three separate families concerning accommodation issues, which the council denies.
Ms Kinsella said the notifications between 2003 and 2006 comprised complaints by each member of large families, including children, many of whom had a number of alleged complaints.
The Equality Tribunal commenced scheduling oral hearings in 2006. In October of that year, four complainant families failed to attend at their hearings and had their cases dismissed by the tribunal.
In 2007, the tribunal issued 22 dismissals and a further 38 dismissals in 2008, while approximately eight cases were dismissed in 2009, with a number of families withdrawing their complaints.
Arising from the initial dismissals by the tribunal in October 2006, appeals in respect of those four decisions were lodged by the families’ representative, Ms Rosen, who later issued a further 20 appeals in 2007.
“Those four appeals first came before the circuit court in 2007. The council argued a preliminary issue as regards the right of appeal in the circumstances of those cases. The matter was heard by the circuit court in October 2007 and the court ruled on the issue. That circuit court decision was judicially reviewed in the High Court and in May 2008, the High Court found that the issue regarding the right of appeal be referred back to the circuit court.
“In October 2009, the circuit court found that there was no right of appeal,” Ms Kinsella said.
Speaking to The Clare Champion, Ms Rosen claimed the council sought a review of the workings of the Equality Tribunal, despite having never previously objected to its work since it began operating in 2003.
Stressing the council should have allowed the tribunal to get on with its work, she said some of her difficulties with the process related to the call-over system of requesting a large number of Travellers to appear at one hearing. About 50 Travellers were asked to appear in January 2007 and another 100 in May 28, 2007, just a week after a tragedy in a Clare Traveller family.
Stating 15 Traveller families still have to have their cases heard, she explained, under the legislation, individual complaints had to be made for each person and a cross-family action couldn’t be taken.
Refuting suggestions she had obstructed the work of the tribunal, she said she had complained about unfair procedures and stressed her complaints were made because of unfair treatment of Travellers.
“I don’t have the money to pay for legal representation concerning the case the council have taken against me. I wrote to councillors highlighting flaws in the new Traveller Accommodation Programme, which were also contained in the previous one and none of them acknowledged my letter,” she claimed.

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