Recently, I invited Rebecca Brown to be a guest on my podcast (Janine Green ASB Chats…). Rebecca is the CEO of ASB Help, a national charity established to improve the support that is available to victims of ASB.
The charity is working hard to ensure that community safety partners receive lots of information and guidance about how they can continue to offer an ASB service during the current pandemic. I was therefore keen to use the episode to discuss the impact that COVID-19 has had on ASB service delivery, as well as understanding the impact on the types of ASB that are being reported.
If you would like to listen to the full episode it can be found here.
Some of the key points that arose from our conversation are summarised below:
1. There has been a significant increase in noise complaints
Lockdown has resulted in a complete overhaul of how we live our daily lives. We are spending nearly 100% of our day inside our homes, and it is somewhat inevitable that this is going to come with an increase in domestic noise. If you are a family with young children, living in a small space without a garden, frustrations and tempers are likely to become frayed at times, which may cause disturbance to neighbours.
When dealing with these types of reports, it is more important than ever that we manage expectations. It has long been recognised that we must apply a reasonableness test when deciding whether something is anti-social (taking into account the harm being caused when doing so) and this is true now more than ever. If there is clearly no intention to cause others nuisance and the noise is coming as an understandable consequence of the rules that we are being asked to live our lives by, is it fair to label that person as a perpetrator?
It is worth looking at the wider context: is this an ongoing issue of noise that has been going on far longer than lockdown? If yes, then this is not a symptom of the pandemic and likely needs to be addressed through ASB action.
Where the noise does appear to be reasonable, education and conversation can be incredibly valuable (see point 3 below). The Noise App is also providing.an excellent tool for helping to understand the extent of the noise and whether it should be categorised as ASB or not.
2. Social distancing can be anti-social
Whilst the police have been given powers to deal with breaches of social distancing rules, application of these has been seen to be a little inconsistent, and social housing providers and councils continue to receive reports from concerned neighbours about rule breaches, including gatherings, etc.
So can the ASB powers be used to tackle social distancing? The answer is quite clearly that they can.
If we take the ASB injunction (Part 1, ASB, Crime and Policing Act 2014), being the most commonly used tool currently being used to tackle these issues, then the definition of ASB is behaviour likely to cause nuisance or annoyance (if happening in a residential setting) or behaviour capable of causing harassment, alarm or distress (where happening in a non-residential setting).
Certainly, a large gathering or an individual repeatedly breaching rules is going to cause these feelings in people witnessing the behaviour. This is not to say that councils or social housing providers should take ASB action against everyone breaching rules, but the ability is there. A harm-centred approach is required: looking at the people who are affected by the behaviour, are they in a high-risk group and therefore in greater need of protection?
3. Education is incredibly important
The first approach that many organisations are opting for is to try to educate and persuade. This starts with the complainant: if the noise appears to be coming about because of the lockdown rules then the officer may need to appeal to them to be a little more tolerant, perhaps offering some practical advice about how to manage the situation.
A softer approach with the household/person causing the noise or breaching the social distancing rules has also been adopted, with the officer being mindful that there might be a misunderstanding of the rules or that the noise might be unintentional. There might be a lack of awareness that the behaviour is causing a nuisance to others and having this pointed out may be enough to stop the behaviour or reduce it.
Surrey Police have created an excellent template for residents to use, which allows someone to politely raise a concern about their neighbour’s behaviour. A copy can be downloaded via ASB Help’s website.
Tensions between neighbours may be particularly high, and organisations may feel that a more structured intervention such as mediation is appropriate. Many mediation companies are still operating, using online approaches.
4. Victims may be affected more than before
Lockdown is having a huge impact on our mental health, with many of us describing mixed emotions and days when it is more difficult to cope. Our resilience is therefore being hugely affected and things that may have been easy to brush off previously suddenly cause a huge amount of distress.
The consequence of this is that any nuisance we suffer may be felt far deeper than it would have been previously. This needs to be remembered by practitioners, and risk assessments will be more important than ever. We must continue to make support referrals where appropriate.
5. Legal action is still possible
Of course, not all the reports that are received will relate to nuisance that is unintentional or unreasonable. There will continue to be serious ASB caused that is resulting in a great deal of harm.
We must remember that legal action is still possible. The ASB injunction has been given priority within the court system, and whilst the process might be different (e.g. virtual hearings, asking for permission to rely on witness statements (as opposed to affidavits) in breach hearings, etc.), it is still very possible.
Possession proceedings have been stayed, but cases can still be issued (albeit some courts have made the decision not to accept new cases, so this should be checked with your local court); longer notice periods may be required but they can still be served. It is important that where possession is the proportionate response we limit the delays as much as possible. An injunction may also be required to reduce the ASB whilst the possession process is being slowed.
Closure orders are also possible and may be useful for issues of social gathering that are causing a great deal of disorder.
I hope the above is useful. Times are challenging, but there are things we can do to continue to keep our communities and residents safe.
This article was initially produced for use on the ASB forum, an on-line platform offered to practitioners free of charge by RHE Global. The forum can be used to ask queries and share best practice. More details on signing up can be found HERE