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How long is too long? Unsuitable accommodation put on trial in the high court

Case Note: R(M) v The London Borough of Newham

In the Hodge Jones & Allen’s social housing team we hear daily about the pressures on local authorities to find housing suitable for the people most in need of it, namely those who have experienced the threat of homelessness. Every local authority in the UK has a legal duty to ensure that suitable accommodation is made available to people and families that are assessed to be owed a housing duty under the Housing Act 1996. However, the lack of suitable, affordable housing has led to thousands of people across the country being accommodated in overcrowded, unsuitable accommodation, sometimes for extended periods of time.

In the recent judgement of R(M) v The London Borough of Newham, Mr Justice Linden was faced with those arguments of scarcity of accommodation from the London Borough of Newham in relation to a family who had been housed by them. The property that M and his family lived in was unsuitable in view of the disabilities of his daughter, who required adapted washing and toilet facilities. Newham wrote to the family in February 2018 confirming that they agreed the property was unsuitable and that they would be given high priority to move.

Despite this, no suitable properties were identified by Newham, and it seemed to the family that no efforts were being made to address the dire circumstances of their living arrangements. The family were suffering serious strain and indignities as a result of the lack of an adequate bathroom. In Court Newham tried to argue that the property was suitable for the family for the time being, although this was contradicted by their own evidence as well as the overwhelming support from the medical practitioners involved in the case.

Justice Lindon was unforgiving of the plight of the local authority recorded in their witness evidence, in which, he pointed out, the housing procurement officer providing the statement had not even accurately described the housing needs of the family. The attempts made by the council to find suitable accommodation, as described in the statement, had coincided with the issue of the letter before claim for judicial review, and the issue of the claim in court.

The judgement concluded that not only was the family’s current home unsuitable, but that it was just to order that Newham have just 12 weeks to source and offer a suitable alternative. At the time the case was heard, the family had been living in the property for over 2 years. It was open to the court to simply declare that the duty had not been fulfilled, and so the addition of a deadline for the family to move was evidence of the Judge’s concerns about the glaring failings in the case that Newham had put before the court.

This is an exceptional case on its facts due to the particularly poor behaviour of the Council. More generally it highlights that a local authority who have not successfully offered suitable accommodation to a homeless applicant have a positive duty to continue to actively search for and source such accommodation. The efforts made by the local authority should be realistic and consistent, and engage with the needs of the applicant and family. If a council that owes a duty to an application wants to rely on the pressures of the housing crisis to avoid their duties, they had better be prepared to show evidence that they have put in sufficient effort to try and find suitable accommodation. Simply blaming a lack of properties is not enough.