‘Violent criminal’ forced young family out of home

Eamonn and Sarah O'Neill and family are staying at a hotel to escape their neighbour. Picture: Gareth Easton
Eamonn and Sarah O'Neill and family are staying at a hotel to escape their neighbour. Picture: Gareth Easton
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CALLS have been made for a housing association chief executive to step down after an academic and his young family were forced to flee their village home to escape the violent behaviour of a tenant convicted of threatening and harassing them.

Dr Eamonn O’Neill, a programme director at the University of Strathclyde, is preparing legal action against Scottish Borders Housing Association (SBHA), which he accuses of “gambling” with his family’s lives after it failed to evict the convicted criminal, despite the fact he willingly relinquished his tenancy in court.

In a case described by one MSP an “appalling chain of events” and a “bleak failure” by the housing association, the lecturer, his wife, and twin sons have been subject to repeated threats and harassment over a four-year period, and are now staying in a hotel for fear of their safety after the tenant returned to the neighbouring address following his release from his prison on Thursday.

One of the country’s leading QCs has said he “simply cannot understand” why the tenant has not been evicted over his “totally unacceptable” behaviour and accused the association of “refusing” to act.

Legal experts also point out that the Selkirk-based registered social landlord has failed to abide by legislation designed to evict anti-social tenants, despite being “well aware” of the situation faced by the O’Neill family “for months if not years”.

Dr O’Neill, a lecturer in English and journalism, and a regular contributor to the BBC, said he has repeatedly sought refuge in hotel accommodation despite upscaling security measures at his Innerleithen home after he, his wife, and four-year-old sons were “directly threatened with serious injury and death”.

Frustrated at what he describes as the “conflicting, erroneous, and false information” emanating from SBHA, he is now preparing to raise a judicial review in the Court of Session seeking an interdict and damages against the association.

He explained: “Because of SBHA my family have been forced to live in a war zone for four years. Instead of feeling safe, we all feel vulnerable. My children are traumatised from non-stop visits from police trying to do their best. Everyone except the top management at SBHA are appalled.

“We’ve filed pages of ASBO forms and the tenant was served with them. Evictions were promised in writing from SBHA. Nothing happened. Lies were told. Emails went unanswered. More pain and anxiety followed.”

He added: “Our lives have been threatened and police officers have privately warned me to leave home. SBHA now perversely allow, despite years of increasingly desperate pleas, a violent convicted criminal banned from even contacting us in any shape or form to move back into a flat beneath us and thus place his needs above those of a young family.”

In September 2011, the tenant, who has previously convicted of domestic abuse, pled guilty at Peebles Sheriff a court to behaving in a threatening and abusive manner at the ground floor address, situated below the privately owned O’Neill residence.

Sheriff Kevin Drummond served him with a criminal anti social behaviour order (CRASBO) excluding him from his flat for 12 months. He also instructed the tenant not to contact Dr O’Neill or his family in any way.

During the hearing, the tenant’s defence agent informed the court that his client had “surrendered his tenancy.” However, it has remained live over the past two years.

Giving his opinion on the plight of the O’Neill family, Andrew Smith QC, a veteran of high-profile court cases such as the Lockerbie and Shirley McKie cases, said: “What I simply cannot understand is why steps have not been taken to exclude the tenant, by ejection or eviction, from the premises.

“In this case, for whatever reason, the housing authority has refused to act. In my opinion it is open to Mr and Mrs O’Neill to take steps to force the landlords to act, by taking the steps necessary to evict or exclude the tenant from the premises.”

He added: “I am also of the firm opinion that a common law nuisance is being committed, with the concurrence and consent of the housing authority. For that they are responsible, not only for having the nuisance terminated but for damages for any loss, injury and damage that they have suffered.

“I consider that in respect of the actions of the authority, they have - by failing to stop the wrong occurring - assumed responsibility for the actions of the tenants.”

Christine Grahame, SNP MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, is to ask Julia Mulloy, SBHA’s chief executive, to step aside pending an inquiry into her handling of the case.

She said: “This is an appalling chain of events and a really bleak failure by SBHA in terms of using the laws which exist properly. What appals me about this case is the fact the tenant surrendered his tenancy.”

“The whole issue of evicting nuisance tenants has become something this government is addressing because the laws aren’t tough enough, it takes too long, and all the duties are with people who are being harassed like Dr O’Neill, who have to log every incident.”

David Mundell, the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale, said: “The housing association are in the lead in terms of resolving this matter. I’ve sought to ensure they’re taking that responsibility on board, and what we want is a resolution to this matter for the O’Neills to be able to live peacefully and securely in their own home.”

Lawyers from Blackwood & Smith acting for Dr O’Neill have written to Julia Mulloy, the chief executive of SBHA, stating that as landlords, they have the right to to prevent the tenant staying in the property.

But in a letter seen by The Scotsman, Harper Macleod - acting for SBHA - claim there is “no process” by which the association can seek to immediately prevent the tenant returning to the address.

“Any such action,” it adds, “would be considered as wrongful eviction” and leave SBHA open to a damages claim from the tenant himself.

The law firm said SBHA has met with the tenant to discuss his tenancy, but state it is unable to disclose the nature of the discussions due to data protection legislation.

In a statement, Ms Mulloy said: “SBHA is very aware of the concerns of the O’Neill family in this situation. However, it would be totally inappropriate to make a public statement regarding one of our tenants. As Dr O’Neill’s solicitor is aware, this is an ongoing, complex situation which we are seeking to resolve to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.”