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Homelessness, Priority Need And The End Of Pandemic Restrictions

During the coronavirus pandemic, homelessness legislation was bolstered with a number of supplementary provisions designed to meet the pressures of the moment. However, with the government recently announcing the end of the remaining restrictions many of the provisions put in place to protect the vulnerable are coming to an end. As we learn to live with COVID we should look at what additional protections are on offer and how their end will affect those who are vulnerable and in need of housing.

The duties which local authorities owe to those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness can be found in Part VII of the Housing Act 1996. Local authorities do not have a broad duty to accommodate every homeless person who approaches them for assistance and a duty to secure accommodation only arises where a person is in “priority need”. Some categories of people are automatically considered to be in priority need, such as pregnant women, those with dependent children and those who are homeless as a result of an emergency such as flood, fire or other disaster. Those who do not fall into one of the aforementioned categories will need to be considered ‘vulnerable’ as a result of some special reason to enjoy the full benefit of the homelessness legislation. It is this latter category which is the most affected by the pandemic-related provisions.

Not everyone who is old, mentally ill, disabled or otherwise unwell has a priority need for accommodation. In order to be considered priority need, such people will need to be considered “vulnerable” as a result of their condition. The meaning of vulnerability in this context has been considered by the Supreme Court in Hotak v LB Southwark (2015) where it was held that to be vulnerable, a person must be “significantly more vulnerable” than the ordinary person if made homeless. Without much further clarification on what “significantly more vulnerable” means, the question of vulnerability is one which is often the subject of dispute and which forms the basis of many homelessness reviews and appeals.

However, during the pandemic further regulations came into force regarding who counts as vulnerable and who might therefor be considered “priority need”. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 set out further categories of those who could be considered “vulnerable” for the purposes of the homelessness legislation. For these purposes, a “vulnerable person” is anyone who is 70 years old or older, or who has a medical condition which increases their vulnerability to COVID-19. The COVID regulations in force before July 2021 provided a non-exhaustive list of health conditions which can increase a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19 and which included, among others, chronic long-term respiratory diseases, chronic heart liver and kidney disease or a weakened immune system.

However, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 expired on 22nd March 2022 with no indication that they will be extended or replaced. This may mean that it becomes harder for homeless individuals to convince housing officers that they should be considered priority need as a result of their vulnerability to COVID-19. In such circumstances applicants who are vulnerable to COVID-19 will continue to be required to meet the definition of “vulnerability” set out in Hotak and may have less basis for suggesting that their vulnerability to COVID-19 renders them more vulnerable than an ordinary person if made homeless.

Fortunately, homeless applicants are able to challenge the decisions of local authorities by exercising their statutory rights to review, appealing to the county court and seeking judicial review. Hodge Jones and Allen has considerable experience in assisting homeless individuals to challenge the decisions of local authorities and has a history of securing favourable outcomes for their clients.

If a decision has been made in your homelessness application which you do not agree with , Hodge Jones & Allen may be able to help. Please contact our Housing Law solicitors on 0330 822 3451 or alternatively you can request a call back.