A family has won the right to sue Glasgow City Council after a violent neighbour killed a family member .. and so it should be – Councils should be held liable for their tenants bad conduct if they don’t take steps to prevent it.
Scotland on Sunday reports :
Published Date: 26 October 2008
By David Leask
JAMES Mitchell told his council landlord he would sue if his violent neighbour ever hurt him or those he loved. Now, seven years after the Glasgow grandfather was clubbed to death with a plank by "the thug next door", his family have finally won their day in court.
In December, Mitchell's widow Anne and daughter Karin will take a £150,000 claim for compensation against Glasgow City Council to the House of Lords. But they won't just have to battle lawyers for the council. Eight Scottish housing associations with no connection to the case have sought the right to have their concerns over the action heard by the Law Lords. The housing associations are terrified that a Mitchell victory could lead to a rash of indefensible lawsuits from other victims of "neighbours from hell" that could cost millions.
"We are worried that the Mitchells' action, if successful, could potentially open up the floodgates to numerous claims for small amounts of money that would not be worth defending," said Graham Craik, a lawyer representing the eight Scottish associations.
"We have no axe to grind against the Mitchells. What happened to them was very sad. But there is a fundamental principle of jurisprudence here. Do we really want to make an organisation responsible for another person's criminal acts?"
The housing associations represented by Craik come from as far afield as Lewis, Shetland and Dundee. Scores of other social landlords, housing associations and councils will be watching the case with interest.
The family are suing Glasgow City Council for failing in its duty of care to Mitchell, a 72-year-old retired factory worker who served on his local community council. The city council, they argue, could have evicted his next-door neighbour and killer, James Drummond, especially as the Mitchells had been the subject of a seven-year campaign of terror which started after Mitchell asked Drummond to turn down his music. That campaign was to end in July 2001 when Drummond attacked Mitchell outside their homes.
Last night, Mitchell's daughter, 36-year-old Karin, said: "Just days before he was attacked, dad had written to the council to say he would sue if anything happened to him or us. We thought we should keep his wish."
The family hope their action can force landlords to act more quickly when other tenants raise concerns about violent neighbours. Karin, however, can see the other point of view too. "Landlords can't be held responsible for everything," she said. "This is not about the money. We just believe that some good must come from my dad dying."
The Mitchells' lawyer, Glasgow-based litigator Cameron Fyfe, of Ross Harper, believes a victory for the family could be a huge advance for tenants' rights but he can also see why such an outcome would concern housing associations. Fyfe yesterday said: "This is an important case as it will determine whether a local council or housing association has a duty of care to protect a tenant from a violent or unruly neighbour in circumstances similar to those of the late Mr Mitchell."
Craik, of McClure Naismith, believes no housing association has ever before sought to intervene in a House of Lords case. Landlords, especially those in troubled urban areas, could face dramatic rises in their costs if the Mitchells win. Insurers will charge far higher premiums to protect landlords from claims such as that brought by the Mitchells.
Craik, however, yesterday suggested that it would be smaller claims that would add up the most.
Scotland's biggest social landlord, Glasgow Housing Association, has alone dealt with 11,000 people who have complained of "neighbours from hell" in the past five years.
One insider said the number of potential lawsuits, should the Mitchells win, could be "staggering".
Other big housing organisations are taking a keen interest in the case.
Andy Young, policy manager at the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, which has 163 members, said: "The Lords' ruling on this case could potentially have far-reaching consequences for many of our members."