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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 17:03 GMT
Law Lords reject key Gypsy case
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Community affairs

Travellers site
The case has wider implications for unauthorised encampments
Law Lords have ruled against a family of travellers in a row that could have stopped evictions around Britain.

The family had argued their human rights were breached when they were forced to leave a recreation field owned by Leeds City Council.

Last year the Court of Appeal dismissed the case, saying councils were legally entitled to take back their own land.

Seven Law Lords unanimously backed that decision, saying the land could never have been considered a home.

The Local Government Association, an umbrella organisation for councils, said the ruling was a "huge relief".

The land was a recreational space used by local people, rather than an official traveller site.

Leeds City Council began standard eviction proceedings, saying it had a right to take the land back because the encampment was entirely unauthorised.

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While the Maloney family subsequently moved on and some of them were found plots in an official council-run travellers' site, they continued their case, arguing that eviction breached their right to family life as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Speaking after the verdict, Kim Maloney said that, while she wanted to stay in Leeds, she wanted to continue with her way of life.

"I have never lived in a house in my life - I get claustrophobic by going [into] a place like that," she told BBC News.

"We've got rights as well as everybody else so if they had somewhere for travellers to go in Leeds... they would've solved this problem a long time ago."

Playing fields

Leeds City Council spokesman Les Carter called for greater powers for local authorities to stamp out unauthorised camps.

"Today's ruling is extremely good news since it upholds our right to take swift and effective action to regain possession of our land," he said.

The LGA's Richard Bennett said: "If the ruling had gone against the council, travellers would have been free to turn any public land into a home, including city centre car parks and school playing fields."

He said local authorities were improving facilities for travellers but were still 4,000 pitches short.

In the case, which had wide implications for Gypsies, other travellers and housing law, the Maloney family moved onto council-owned land at Spinkwell Lane, near Wakefield, in the summer of 2004.

Contradictory rulings

Judges at the Court of Appeal ruled against the family, but said the House of Lords should consider if the case was affected by a clash between two contradictory judgements in different courts.

In the first ruling, involving a tenancy dispute, the House of Lords said a council could take the usual steps to seize its property without breaching someone's rights.

But that contradicted a separate judgement at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, involving the Connors family, travellers from Yorkshire related to the Maloneys.

It seems to me all but unarguable that the recreation ground at Spinkwell Lane...was ever their home
Lord Bingham

Judges there said Leeds City Council had infringed the family's rights because it had summarily evicted them without having properly considered their circumstances as a vulnerable minority.

In the House of Lords judgement, Lord Bingham, one of the seven Law Lords, said the family had no argument because English law very clearly defined the boundaries between housing, repossession and a right to family life.

"It seems to me all but unarguable that the recreation ground at Spinkwell Lane on which the appellants parked their caravans was ever their home within the meaning of [human rights law]," said Lord Bingham."

'Win' predicted

He added: "They had been on the site for two days, without any authority whatever. If, however, the land was their home, it is plain that their eviction was in accordance with domestic property law, which had the legitimate end of enabling public authorities to evict unlawful squatters from public land and restore it to public use. "

Lord Bingham said the case was "far removed" from the Strasbourg ruling because the Connor family had been legally resident on their site.

"The public look to public authorities to preserve their land for public purposes and to bring unlawful occupation to an end, with the environmental hazards it is likely to entail," said the Law Lord.

While the Strasbourg judges have an influential role in British law because they police the workings of the human rights convention, lower courts must follow judgements made by the Law Lords.

Many councils had predicted a win for the family would have meant evictions of unauthorised traveller encampments, and other housing disputes, would have ground to a halt.


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SEE ALSO:
Action against Gypsies is delayed
02 Nov 04 |  Somerset
'Effigy' gypsies unite at bonfire
31 Oct 04 |  Southern Counties


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