In 2020, the UK government set out a revised landmark version of the Domestic Abuse Bill to offer more support and protection, including emergency accommodation, to those fleeing a violent home.
We look at the proposed changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill announced for 2020 and explore how these changes may help those fleeing domestic violence.
Current domestic abuse laws
The current law, in regards to priority need and domestic abuse is as follows:
s. 189 Housing Act 1996 (as amended)
(1)The following have a priority need for accommodation—
(a) a pregnant woman or a person with whom she resides or might reasonably be expected to reside;
(b) a person with whom dependent children reside or might reasonably be expected to reside;
(c) a person who is vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or handicap or physical disability or other special reason, or with whom such a person resides or might reasonably be expected to reside;
(d) a person who is homeless or threatened with homelessness as a result of an emergency such as flood, fire or other disaster.
(2) The Secretary of State may by order—
(a )specify further descriptions of persons as having a priority need for accommodation,
Homelessness Order 2002
In 2002, The Secretary of State specified six additional categories of people in priority need within the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002. It intended to include those fleeing violence who were not pregnant or without dependent children, stating:
“A person who is vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation because of violence from another person or threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out”.
Why might local housing associations deny emergency accommodation?
For housing associations to grant emergency accommodation, applicants must meet a set of tests and requirements, creating a series of hurdles for them to jump over.
The 2002 changes introduced a three-stage test which associations must use to decide whether an applicant is considered vulnerable.
The Homelessness Code of Guidance (2018) Para 21.34, is often used as a further supplement to this test. It contains no less than four factors to consider when considering whether the applicant is vulnerable.
As a result of the different hurdles faced by survivors, local housing authorities often deny priority need. This is typically because:
- They did not consider the threat to carry out the violence likely to be carried out.
- They accepted the applicant had been subject to violence but that they were not vulnerable as a result of it.
- They believe applicants don’t meet the threshold for vulnerability determined by the various tests and requirements.
Read our article on why the Domestic Abuse Bill should provide automatic priority need to those fleeing violence for more information on the challenges faced by many domestic abuse survivors.
What happens now?
The new Bill proposes a change to the rules meaning that those fleeing domestic abuse and facing homelessness as a result, will be automatically considered in priority need. As a result, more survivors of domestic abuse will have access to a safe home.
How do these changes affect emergency accommodation?
What is clear from the revised Bill is that the burden of inquiry should rest with the local housing authority. It is not for the applicant to ‘prove’ their case.
Usually, local authorities can use a written statement from a domestic abuse advocate or a police report to support their enquiries. But in situations where the applicant hasn’t contacted a domestic abuse charity, reported the abuse to the police or told family and friends, this isn’t possible. In these cases, the local housing authority ought to take what the applicant says at face value and use the initial interview and assessment of needs from the Personalised Housing Plan. For this to happen though, local housing authority officers need proper training to identify victims of abuse and how they ought to handle such cases.
What’s still needed?
The proposed changes to the Bill are a step in the right direction. However, absolute clarity is still needed to avoid any doubts that could cause local housing associations to continue turning away vulnerable applicants. For example, the final draft of the revised Bill should:
- Clearly state that it also applies to those who have first fled into a refuge before making an application to the local authority, thus incorporating the judgment in Birmingham v Ali.
- Provide clarity on how a local housing authority should accept that an applicant is homeless as a result of fleeing violence.
Without further guidance and clarity of these issues, there will be uncertainty which could render the “automatic” determination of priority need futile.