Government may face legal challenge if it tries to lengthen emergency measures that run out in days
An extension of the rent freeze and eviction ban beyond July 20 may not be legally possible, it has emerged.
Former attorney general Séamus Woulfe warned the last government that an extension of the Covid-19 emergency measures may not be permitted under existing legislation and could face a legal challenge.
The revelation casts serious doubt over newly appointed Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien's commitment to extend the ban on rent increases and evictions until October.
The current freeze on rents is due to expire in two weeks and the new Cabinet will have to make a decision on extending the legislation in face of serious concerns over the legality of the move.
Last month, Mr O'Brien publicly pledged he would not allow any rent increase for at least another three months.
Speaking to the 'Sunday Independent', the Housing Minister said: "In the short-term [with] the certainty that gives and stability it gives, it would be useful to extend it for another three months."
However, the Irish Independent has learned Mr Woulfe warned former housing minister Eoghan Murphy extending the ban could pose serious legal problems for the Government.
The former attorney general said the freeze was put in place under emergency legislation which aimed to reduce the movement of people at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Woulfe said extending the ban while the country was being reopened could leave the Government open to legal challenges from landlords who had not been able to evict tenants.
Before Mr Murphy extended the rent freeze he was told the public interest clause in the emergency legislation may not be met if people are being encouraged to return to work and businesses are being asked to reopen.
The legislation allows the extension of the emergency measures as long it meets three conditions.
The first is that there is a threat to public health presented by Covid-19.
The second requirement is that the virus must still be "highly contagious", and the third is that the Government needs to "restrict the movement of persons in order to prevent the spread of the disease among the population".
Mr Woulfe and his officials said they did not believe the third condition could be legitimately met when the Government was lifting restrictions on travel within the country.
Mr Murphy is understood to have asked that the rent and eviction ban be extended further into the summer.
However, he was forced to compromise on June 20 due to the legal concerns expressed by the Government's legal adviser. On Wednesday, Mr O'Brien told the Dáil he was obliged to write to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly to seek public health advice before he made a decision on extending the ban on rent hikes or evictions.
"If it is justified, I will bring a proposal to Government accordingly," he said.
The new Housing Minister conceded the criteria for an extension of the emergency laws include the threat to public health and the need to restrict people's movement to prevent the spread of the virus. Mr O'Brien was speaking during a debate on a Labour Party motion which sought an extension of the moratorium on evictions and rent increases among other measures.
It also sought the introduction of laws to protect people threatened with eviction due to rent or mortgage arrears accrued during the pandemic.
During the debate, Labour Party housing spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said "huge numbers" of people whose livelihoods had been hugely affected by the coronavirus pandemic were in rented accommodation.
"We are now in a situation where the collapse in employment is disproportionately affecting those who have been renting," Mr Ó Ríordáin said.
The Dublin Bay North TD said there were about 200,000 renters in the sectors most severely affected by job losses.
He said renters accounted for 38pc of workers in the accommodation and food sectors, 28pc of workers in the administration and support sector, 27pc of retail workers, 23pc of those who work in the arts, and 21pc of those who work in construction.
Labour Party leader Alan Kelly insisted rent freezes were constitutionally possible as he introduced one when he was housing minister while in coalition with Fine Gael.
Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin said as a "matter of urgency" Mr O'Brien must extend the ban on rent increases and evictions. "We will work constructively with him and other colleagues to achieve those ends, but the time to act is now and I urge the minister to do so," he added.
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