UK: Homeless family wins Supreme Court appeal to stay in London

Supreme CourtA single mother-of-five has successfully challenged a council’s decision that it had discharged its duty to house her homeless family by offering accommodation in another local authority area more than 50 miles away.

The UK Supreme Court ruled that the council had acted unlawfully and quashed the decision.

The court heard that the appellant Titina Nzolameso and her five children aged between 8 and 14 were evicted from the privately rented home in central London - in which they had been living since 2008 - following the introduction of a cap on housing benefit, which left the mother her unable to pay the rent.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide accommodation in their own area “so far as reasonably practicable” under section 208(1) Housing Act 1996.

The accommodation must be suitable to the needs of the homeless person and each member of the household, and the location can be relevant to its suitability. Regard must be given to any guidance given by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

While out of borough placements are not prohibited, the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 requires authorities to take into account the distance of the accommodation being offered from its district and the disruption to caring responsibilities or the education of any member of the household.

The obligation to secure accommodation as close as possible to where the household had previously been living was strengthened by supplementary guidance, including the need to seek to retain established links with schools, doctors, social workers and other key services and support.

The respondent housing authority, City of Westminster Council, accepted that the appellant was unintentionally homeless and that it owed a duty to provide her with suitable accommodation.

It offered her temporary accommodation in a house in Bletchley, near Milton Keynes, with a brief explanation that due to a severe shortage of accommodation it was not reasonably practicable to offer her a home in Westminster, but that this house was suitable in view of her circumstances.

The children were not of GCSE age so Westminster considered it suitable for them to move schools.

The appellant refused the accommodation and Westminster served notice that its duty to house her had come to an end.

Her application for a review of the decision was unsuccessful and her appeals to the County Court and Court of Appeal were also dismissed, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court.

The five judges unanimously allowed the appeal and quashed Westminster’s decision that it had discharged its duty to house the appellant because she had refused suitable accommodation.

They held that the courts below were too ready to assume that Westminster had properly complied with its statutory obligations, which had the effect of immunising from judicial scrutiny automatic decisions to house people far from their home district.

Giving the judgment of the court, Lady Hale said: “There is little to suggest that serious consideration was given to the authority’s obligations before the decision was taken to offer the property in Bletchley.

“At that stage, the temporary lettings team knew little more than what was on the homelessness application form. This did not ask any questions aimed at assessing how practicable it would be for the family to move out of the area.

“The review decision is based on the premise that, because of the general shortage of available housing in the borough, the authority could offer accommodation anywhere else, unless the applicant could show that it was necessary for her and her family to remain in Westminster.

“There was no indication of the accommodation available in Westminster and why that had not been offered to her. There was no indication of the accommodation available near to Westminster, or even in the whole of Greater London, and why that had not been offered to her.

“There was, indeed, no indication that the reviewing officer had recognised that, if it was not reasonably practicable to offer accommodation in Westminster, there was an obligation to offer it as close by as possible.

“It follows that the authority cannot show that their offer of the property in Bletchley was sufficient to discharge their legal obligations towards the appellant under the 1996 Act.

“The appeal must be allowed and the decision that their duty to secure that accommodation was made available to her had come to an end must be quashed.”

Share icon
Share this article: