Racial attacks by tenants put Lancaster Council in the dock

Bibi Berki reports

If local authorities can be held responsible in the civil courts for the wrong-doing of its tenants, can that blame be extended to cover criminal acts as well?

Lancaster City Council is being sued for negligence by two of its tenants for allegedly failing to prevent a string of racially-motivated attacks against them.

Mixed race couple Mal Hussein and Linda Livingstone own a corner shop on the city's Ryelands estate.

They have documented 1,500 racially motivated incidents and have been subjected to a series of racial attacks since they moved to the area six years ago to set up a business.

In 1992 a bullet was fired through the shop-door window of their premises, narrowly missing Hussein's head. The gunman was never traced.

Gangs of adults and their children have since hurled petrol bombs at the shop, shouting racist taunts such as "burn the Pakis". The attacks have even been caught on camera and televised in a programme about racism.

The local authority says it played a leading role in securing convictions for violent disorder against the three adults and five children who petrol-bombed the couple's home in November 1996.

Although the youths were given a total of 24 years detention, the judge said he did not think the attacks were racially motivated.

Hussein and Livingstone claim that the Labour-run council has since failed to prevent acts of violence and vandalism committed by tenants and their friends on the estate despite tenancy agreements which prohibit anti-social and racist behaviour.

The couple said that initially they had no intention of taking legal action against the council but were driven to it by six years of alleged inaction on the part of the local authority.

"What do you have to do on Ryelands in order to be in breach of your tenancy agreement?" asked Livingstone. "I think that they will have to hospitalise or kill either me or Mal for the council to evict these people."

The couple's case was originally handled by Preston-based Bhailok Fielding, but has now been taken over by London civil liberties practice Bindman & Partners.

Solicitor Clive Romain, who is acting for the couple, says a writ was issued against the council. Lancaster City Council applied to have it struck out and was successful. Bindmans appealed against the decision to a judge in chambers and won the appeal.

Lancaster is now appealing that decision and the hearing is expected early next year.

Romain explained: "The basic issues are whether we can sue the landlord – Lancaster City Council – for either nuisance or negligence for the failure on their part to stop acts of harassment by residents and tenants on their estate. The tenants are not officers of the landlord but have some degree of control under the landlord."

The council argued that it could not be held responsible for the criminal actions of its tenants.

The case is being handled in-house for Lancaster by managing solicitor Sarah Hadaway and externally by Reynolds Porter Chamberlain.

Reynolds Porter partner Oenone Grant-Duprez said she was sympathetic to Hussein's plight. But she added that the issue was one of criminal acts carried out by tenants while outside of their properties. "The remedy sought is not going to stop the problem," said Grant-Duprez. "It's not even as if they all live in this estate."

The appeal hearing will decide whether the nuisance/ negligence action can continue.

If Hussein and Livingstone win, the repercussions could be very serious for local authorities, according to Grant-Duprez.

She said that if local authorities were found to be responsible for the criminal actions of their tenants, it would be a short step to saying that private landlords could also be to blame for their tenants' criminal wrongdoings.