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Domestic abuse and homelessness: the case for automatic priority need

Domestic abuse is sadly one of the leading causes of homelessness. Government statistics demonstrate that between June 2018 and June 2019, 23,960 people were made homeless in England as a direct result of domestic abuse. Two thirds of the 2.4 million people in the UK who experienced domestic violence in the year ending March 2019 were women.

The Current Law

The current position faced by many women applying as homeless as a result of fleeing domestic abuse is that even if they pass the eligibility and homeless tests they will not automatically be in priority need due to the domestic abuse itself. Instead they need to pass an additional test to show that they are vulnerable as a result of the abuse and violence they have suffered.

Unless they are found to be automatically in priority need for another reason, for example by having dependent children, a local authority will not have an automatic duty to accommodate them and they will be at risk of street homelessness or sofa surfing.

In the absence of strong medical evidence to show that they are also vulnerable (which can be difficult to obtain on an urgent basis), women can be left in the very vulnerable position of being street homeless as a result of domestic abuse, with no clear path to even temporary accommodation and at risk of further abuse on the street- with 58% of women being subjected to abuse or intimidation while street homeless, compared to 42% of men.

New Proposal

The government is being lobbied to create a new category of automatic priority need for those fleeing domestic violence in the Domestic Abuse Bill. This would in theory provide women fleeing domestic abuse with a more straightforward route to accommodation, preventing street homelessness and the current situation where those faced by domestic abuse have to choose between staying with their abuser and risking injury or death and sofa surfing or street homelessness, where the risks of further abuse are very much present.

The Domestic Abuse Bill will also provide a statutory definition of domestic violence which clarifies that violence is not limited to actual physical violence. At present the cross-government definition only appears in statutory guidance. This is often misunderstood by local authorities and a homeless applicant fleeing domestic abuse can find themselves in a position where they are told they are not homeless and that it is appropriate for them to continue to live with their abuser on the basis that the abuse is not of a physical nature. This is already challengeable but a clear statutory definition should minimise the additional pressure put on those fleeing domestic abuse by local authorities who misinterpret the law.

The proposed new legislation appears to take positive steps in establishing that the definition of domestic abuse covers all forms of physical, emotional and financial abuse and coercive behaviour. Additionally, it offers protection for tenants who are faced with losing their security of tenure when applying as homeless. Currently a secure or assured tenant is faced with losing their security of tenure when fleeing domestic abuse, with no guarantee that they will regain it in future, the likelihood being that they will not due to the shortage of social housing. The Bill sets out proposals for lifetime secure tenancies to be granted to secure or assured tenants who are faced with losing their tenancy due to domestic abuse.

What has been missed?

Concerns have been raised that the Bill does not offer any protection to those whose immigration status makes them reluctant to contact the police or local authority when they experience domestic abuse. It remains to be seen how the government will address this and avoid creating a two tier system based on recourse to public funds.

It is also somewhat unclear how a local authority will establish that an applicant has fled domestic abuse. It is hoped that local authorities will not be requiring applicants to provide evidence of this. This is not a legal requirement but local authorities have tried to obtain such evidence from applicants in the past. This can obviously be very difficult and potentially traumatic to obtain.

This legislation, on the whole, represents a positive development in the context of homeless applications resulting from domestic abuse, although it could go much further. It could create a new category of automatic priority need and provide safeguards for those who are reluctant to contact the police or local authorities due to their immigration status.