Artwork by Julia Giles

Court of appeal grants permission to appeal in benefit cap challenge

The Court of Appeal has recognised the urgency of an appeal against the decision of the High Court dismissing an application for judicial review brought by three children and their lone parent mothers.

In granting permissions to appeal and allowing these children to continue their challenge to the Government’s flagship ‘benefit cap’ policy,  Lord Justice Richards has ordered that the hearing must be expedited and heard as soon as possible, given the “public importance of this test case” and the potential impact of any delay on those affected by the cap.

All three women have been left by their husbands to look after their young children.  Two of the women have been subjected to severe domestic violence.  As a result of their trauma and the fact that they have to look after young pre-school children none of the mothers are able to work.  Despite this they all find themselves caught by the benefit cap, principally because of the high rents charged by private landlords in London.  The court heard that despite the high rents the accommodation provided for these families is very poor and inadequate,  the worst affected family living in a damp and rodent infested flat.  The evidence before the court was that if these families were to pay their rent they would be forced to live on less than the government’s own destitution levels.
The benefit cap policy involves the ‘capping’ of benefits, including housing benefit, child benefit, and child tax credit to families who do not work sufficient hours to qualify for Working Tax Credit.  It is set at £500 per week for families, regardless of their family size, housing costs or circumstances. The Government has acknowledged that the policy disproportionately affects lone parents (who are overwhelmingly women).  Children are also hard hit: children are nine times more likely to be affected than adults, and 98% of households affected by the cap have children.  The families argue that the benefit cap is discriminatory against women and children, and in particular against families that have escaped domestic violence,  many of whom have particularly high housing costs in refuges or temporary accommodation.  The policy is also said to discriminate against particular races and religions with large families, including Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Roma families.

When the families’ case was dismissed by the High Court on November 5th the High Court stated that the full impact of the benefit cap had not been appreciated by Parliament or anyone else before its introduction, and the judges were very sympathetic to the plight of these families.  The High Court acknowledged that the steps recommended by the Government to avoid the benefit cap were fanciful for these families – for good reasons they are unable to work sufficient hours to avoid the cap, to move outside London or to budget.  The sums which they are left to live upon once rent is paid are impossible.

Rebekah Carrier of Hopkin Murray Beskine solicitors who act for the three families said:

‘These families find themselves caught by the cap because of accidents of geography combined with the circumstances of their family breakdown including in two cases their flight from violence with their children. All three families are extremely anxious about where they will be able to live and how they will afford to feed their children. Since the hearing at the beginning of this month they have been awaiting the outcome of their requests to their local authorities for assistance in resolving their housing problems. They are hopeful that the Court of Appeal will consider their cases as soon as possible, because the sums of money involved mean that after even a short period of “capping” they may be left homeless and with a burden of debt that they would have no prospect of repaying’.

Despite the High Court’s clear sympathy with their plight, their claim for judicial review was rejected largely because of the hope that they would be re-housed in affordable accommodation by their local authorities.  The families have been attempting to secure affordable, suitable housing from their local authorities to no avail, and they do not consider that it is realistic for the Government or the Courts to expect local authorities to ‘do the impossible – provide cheaper housing to all of those affected by the benefit cap who are unable to escape its effects at a time when their budgets have been cut by central Government.

A hearing date in the Court of Appeal is awaited.

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