All local authorities will urgently need to review and publish fresh guidance, say lawyers
The Supreme Court has today allowed an appeal by a mother of five who was made homeless by Westminster Council after refusing to be re-housed 50 miles away in Milton Keynes.
Titina Nzolameso had argued that Westminster Council failed to examine all the available housing in the borough or available nearer to the authority’s district when they made their decision and therefore, it was unlawful. Today, Lady Hale in the Supreme Court (by a majority decision) allowed the appeal and quashed Westminster’s decision which determined the offer of accommodation in Milton Keynes was suitable. She said:
There is little to suggest that serious consideration was given to the authority’s obligations before the decision was taken to offer the property in Bletchley. At that stage, the temporary lettings team knew little more than what was on the homelessness application form. This did not ask any questions aimed at assessing how practicable it would be for the family to move out of the area. Nor were any inquiries made to see whether school places would be available in Bletchley and what the appellant’s particular medical conditions required…There was no indication of the accommodation available in Westminster and why that had not been offered to her. There was no indication of the accommodation available near to Westminster, or even in the whole of Greater London, and why that had not been offered to her. There was, indeed, no indication that the reviewing officer had recognised that, if it was not reasonably practicable to offer accommodation in Westminster, there was an obligation to offer it as close by as possible.
It follows that the authority cannot show that their offer of the property in Bletchley was sufficient to discharge their legal obligations towards the appellant under the 1996 Act…I would add that they also cannot show that they have properly discharged their obligation under section 11 of the Children Act 2004. The appeal must be allowed and the decision that their duty to secure that accommodation was made available to her had come to an end must be quashed.
The Supreme Court has provided clarity on the application of section 11 of the Children Act 2004 of whether accommodation offered by a local authority is ‘suitable’. The Court has said that a local authority must have regard to the need to promote, as well as to safeguard, the interests of children when looking at the question of whether accommodation offered to a homelessness applicant is suitable.
Following the Court of Appeal decision, Ms Nzolameso was made homeless after Westminster Council ceased to provide her with temporary accommodation. Her five children were subsequently separated into care across three homes. Reporting restrictions remain in place regarding Ms Nzolameso’s children, who cannot be named.
Ms Nzolameso says: “I am very happy with today’s outcome and delighted to be reunited with my children after a long legal battle. When I first refused the offer of accommodation in Milton Keynes, I never envisaged that my children would be taken away from me. There was an obligation on the Council to offer me accommodation in the district to which I applied to or closer to it. Westminster simply failed to lawfully address that question.
“Naturally, I am pleased that my case will now set an important precedent for homelessness applicants across the UK who are faced with important decisions (often on very short notice) to move far away from the authority or district they apply to for housing. I believe the decision will greatly help vulnerable groups and provide a mechanism for allowing them to see at the outset what factors are taken into consideration by a local authority when offering accommodation either in or outside the borough.”
Ms Nzolameso’s solicitor, Jayesh Kunwardia of Hodge Jones & Allen, says: “This is an important victory for my client and her children. It is only fair and just that the earlier County Court and Court of Appeal decision has been set aside as it set a terrible precedent for local authorities to adopt a practice of allocating housing to vulnerable people without due regard to their statutory duties and obligations.
“Westminster, like other councils, is under great financial pressure and I would urge politicians on the campaign trail to take note and think long and hard about council and social housing funding; budget cuts will not be tolerated by the courts as an excuse to move homeless families miles away from their friends and support networks. The court has issued very clear guidance today for local authorities.
“Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that there were over 15,000 homeless households in out of borough temporary accommodation, an increase of 123% in three years. So this decision will give hope to many of those offered accommodation out of their current district and will put the onus on local authorities to be transparent about their decisions in such cases.”
The guidance issued by the Supreme Court today says:
Ideally, each local authority should have, and keep up to date, a policy for procuring sufficient units of temporary accommodation to meet the anticipated demand during the coming year. That policy should, of course, reflect the authority’s statutory obligations under both the (Housing) 1996 Act and the Children Act 2004. It should be approved by the democratically accountable members of the council and, ideally, it should be made publicly available. Secondly, each local authority should have, and keep up to date, a policy for allocating those units to individual homeless households. Where there was an anticipated shortfall of “in borough” units, that policy would explain the factors which would be taken into account in offering households those units, the factors which would be taken into account in offering units close to home, and if there was a shortage of such units, the factors which would make it suitable to accommodate a household further away. That policy too should be made publicly available.
Ms Nzolameso and HJA instructed Martin Westgate QC and Lindsay Johnson from Doughty Street Chambers in this case.
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Notes to editors:
- Ms Nzolameso applied as homeless to Westminster Council in November 2012. The Council accepted a duty to house her and her five children and offered her accommodation in Milton Keynes. She did not accept the offer on the grounds of unsuitability. She had lived in Westminster for over four years and had many friends who provided her support on account of her medical problems. Ms Nzolameso was also concerned that the house in Milton Keynes was too far from her children’s schools.
- There was a review in relation to the Council’s decision followed by an appeal which came before His Honour Judge Hornby in the Central London County Court on 31 October 2013. The County Court Judge recognised the case as a “close run thing as to whether this could be said to be an unreasonable decision” but ruled the Council’s decision was not unlawful. In December 2013, Ms Nzolameso issued her appeal to the Court of Appeal.
- The Housing Act 1996 requires councils to house tenants within their local area as far as reasonably practicable. The law requires that accommodation secured by the local authority must be suitable for the needs of the household. Location of accommodation is relevant to its suitability. Parliament has intended that in so far “as reasonably practicable a local housing authority shall in discharging their housing functions…….secure that accommodation is available for the occupation of the applicant in their district”.
- There is supplemental guidance for local authorities to apply determining suitability. This includes the distance of accommodation from the local authority, significance of any disruption which would be caused by the location of the accommodation to the employment, caring responsibilities, education of the person’s household and proximity and accessibility to the applicant’s support network, including local services, amenities and transport.
- Very few local authorities when deciding issues concerning an offer of accommodation give little or no consideration to the matter of what is in the best interest of the children. Shelter filed submissions to support the appeal on that point.
- Statistics demonstrate the extent of the problem: of the 60,940 households in temporary accommodation on 30 September 2014, 15,260 (25 per cent) were housed outside of the authority’s district. This is an increase of 29 per cent, from 11,860 (21 per cent) at the same date last year. Of the 15,260 accommodated in another local authority district, 14,220 were from London authorities (93 per cent of the England total). 45,640 of the households in temporary accommodation included dependent children or a pregnant woman.
- Hodge Jones & Allen was founded in 1977 in Camden and has over 200 staff based in Euston NW1. The firm practices personal injury, clinical negligence, civil liberties, family law, wills and probate, housing, dispute resolution, criminal defence and serious fraud.