Social landlords are frequently faced with discrimination allegations in response to possession claims but rarely appoint an assessor who could help deal with potentially complex court proceedings.
So, what is an assessor and how can landlords benefit?
The Equality Act 2010 provides legal protection for individuals from discrimination in the workplace, at home and in wider society. Since 1 October 2010, there has been a presumption that any Equality Act claim relating to possession proceedings should have the benefit of a specialist assessor to sit with the judge unless ‘there are good reasons for not doing do’.
According to the 2010 Code of Practice on Services, Public Functions and Associations, assessors are “persons of skills and experience in discrimination issues who help to evaluate the evidence.”
The reason for their introduction is twofold. Firstly, it furthers the Equality Act’s purpose of making the law easier to understand – in this case for judges who can draw on specialists trained to deal with discrimination complaints. Secondly, it strengthens protection in some situations by recognising that the sensitive nature of discrimination and vulnerability requires an added layer of safeguarding.
If a breach of the Equality Act has been pleaded, the judge must find good reasons not to appoint an assessor. The Code of Practice points out that a good reason is not because the court believes it can hear the issues without assessor or that they would lengthen proceedings.
An assessor will assist the court in dealing with a matter in which they have the appropriate experience and skills. The matter is identified before the assessor is appointed on the basis that different forms of discrimination can’t be all treated the same. An assessor will not make judicial decisions but advise and educate the judge to ensure he or she reaches a suitably informed decision.
A key advantage of an assessor is the ability to discern whether people are deceiving the court. They can understand the sort of masks, pretences and protests which are often put forward by those who discriminate as well as how unconscious bias or stereotyping can operate.
It’s this knowledge and experience that can be vital for social landlords. It can result in greater scrutiny of dealings with tenants which could prove key in helping to dismiss false discrimination claims.
The statutory provisions in the law clearly see assessors as the norm, but surprisingly, legal teams rarely apply for them to be appointed and in my experience, they have been the exception rather than the rule. However, parties and their representatives involved in claims relating to the Equality Act could be missing a useful opportunity to assist the court in what are often complex cases.
For further information on assessors or advice on managing discrimination claims, please contact Lee Russell in our Housing Management team.