Housing, Homelessness And Domestic Abuse In the COVID-19 Public Inquiry
The government recently announced that the terms of reference for the upcoming public inquiry into its response to COVID-19 will include issues of housing and homelessness.
Hodge Jones & Allen represent the domestic abuse charity Refuge and homelessness charity Porchlight and work alongside Shelter in trying to ensure that issues of housing, homelessness and domestic abuse during the pandemic are properly investigated.
What is a public inquiry?
A public inquiry can be understood as a temporary government department which is set up to look into a specific issue of public concern. They are set up by government ministers using their powers in the Inquiries Act 2005.
A public inquiry is not a legal proceeding in the same way a civil lawsuit or a criminal prosecution is and it cannot decide issues of criminal or civil liability. That means it cannot find anyone guilty of any crime, nor can it award damages or other remedies to wronged parties. Rather, it is an investigatory and fact-finding exercise. It is intended to investigate in detail what exactly happened in a matter of public interest, including what was done right and what was done wrong, and explore how such issues might be handled better in the future.
The chair of the inquiry is selected by the minister that established it. This is often a judge, but does not have to be. This particular inquiry is chaired by Baroness Hallett, who is a retired judge from the Court of Appeal and a peer in the House of Lords.
What will the inquiry be investigating?
The terms of reference have been set out by the government here. Crucially for HJA’s clients, they include an investigation of housing and homelessness as they relate to public health decision-making. In our view, this should include an investigation of:
- The effectiveness of the government’s ‘everyone in’ policy for housing rough sleepers during lockdown;
- The ways in which that policy was implemented by local authorities;
- Whether anything more could have been done to ensure that those housed under ‘everyone in’ did not end up back on the streets afterwards;
- The effectiveness of the stay on possession and eviction proceedings;
- Whether anything more could have been done to protect people who were at risk of eviction as a result of not being able to work or any other reasons connected with the pandemic and lockdown;
- The effect of the lockdowns on the worrying rise in domestic abuse;
- The effect of the pandemic and lockdowns on the allocation of council housing, including the suspension of transfers for residents who needed to escape domestic abuse or accommodation that was damaging to their health due to medical, welfare and disability reasons.
How will the inquiry be conducting its investigation?
The chair of the inquiry, Baroness Hallett, has powers under section 21 of the Inquiries Act to require anyone that she deems necessary to provide written witness statements, documents under their control and oral evidence. She must do this by writing the proposed witnesses a ‘Rule 9’ letter.
Who else will participate?
As well as those required to participate by the chair, the Inquiries Rules 2006 permit the chair to allow other parties to participate in the inquiry as ‘core participants’. An individual or organisation can ask the chair to include them as a participant. They will be allowed to participate if the chair considers they were involved in the issues at hand, or have a significant interest in those issues, or if they are likely to be subjected to criticism during the inquiry.
What will happen next?
The inquiry recently closed its consultation on the issues to be included in its investigations and we are waiting to hear in more detail exactly what it will be looking at. We anticipate there will then be a timetable set out as to how it wishes to proceed.