Artwork by Julia Giles

Court of appeal rules that ‘BEDROOM TAX’ is unlawful


Today, the Court of Appeal has ruled that the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ is unlawful because of its impact on vulnerable individuals. The Court of Appeal dealt with two appeals together and in both cases ruled that the discrimination against victims of domestic violence and disabled children was not lawful.

One appeal, brought by a woman known only as ‘A,’ concerned the effect of the policy on women living in ‘Sanctuary Scheme’ homes – properties which are specially adapted because of risks to the lives and physical safety of women and children who live in them.  The second appeal, brought by Paul and Susan Rutherford and their grandson Warren, concerns the impact of the policy on seriously disabled children who need overnight care.  In both appeals, the judges accepted that the bedroom tax policy unlawfully discriminates – against women and domestic violence victims, and against seriously disabled children requiring overnight care.

A’s Appeal
This appeal is brought by a woman known only as ‘A’ because her identity must be protected for her own safety.  She is a victim of rape, assault, harassment and stalking at the hands of an ex-partner. She challenges the under-occupation provisions/ size criteria, colloquially known as the ‘bedroom tax’.  She claims that the housing benefit regulations which have introduced the scheme are discriminatory and will have devastating consequences for her and her 11-year-old son. 
Under the ‘bedroom tax’, A and her son are only entitled to receive housing benefit for a 2-bedroom property.  However they live in a 3-bedroom property which has been specially adapted for them by the police pursuant to a Sanctuary Scheme, because her life and physical safety are at risk from her ex-partner who has a history of serious violence.  Her housing benefit has been reduced by 14% given the Secretary of State’s policy.    

The Sanctuary Scheme aims to enable householders at risk of violence to remain safely in their own home by installing a ‘Sanctuary’ within the home and provide support to the household.  A has had a ‘panic space’ installed in her home, as well as a specialist ‘sanctuary system’.  This includes expensive reinforced doors, electric alarms, a marker on the house and alarms linked to the police station. 

Her legal team (solicitor Rebekah Carrier at Hopkin Murray Beskine and barristers Karon Monaghan QC, Matrix Chambers, and Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Katie O’Byrne, Doughty Street Chambers) argued that the Secretary of State had failed to take into account the disproportionate impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ upon victims of domestic violence, who are overwhelmingly women, and in particular those in Sanctuary Scheme homes.

According to figures obtained in freedom of information responses from 79 local authorities, almost 1 in 20 households using the Sanctuary Scheme for people at risk of severe domestic violence have been affected by the under-occupancy penalty or bedroom tax, totaling 281 households across the country.  The vast majority of people in the Sanctuary Scheme are women. 

Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor acting for A, said:

“These changes to housing benefit have had a catastrophic impact upon vulnerable people across the country.  Our client’s life is at risk and she is terrified. The anxiety caused by the bedroom tax and the uncertainty about this case has been huge.  She lives in a property which has been specially adapted by the police, at great expense, to protect her and her child.  The prospect of having to another property (where she will not have any of these protections) or take in a lodger has loomed large for her during the three years it has taken this case to come to the Court of Appeal. She is a vulnerable single parent who has been a victim of rape and assault.  She is delighted that the Court of Appeal has recognised the impact that the bedroom tax is having on her and others like her. She very much hopes that the Secretary of State will now see sense and agree to change the rules to protect the small but extremely vulnerable class of women and children who need the safety of a sanctuary scheme whilst they try to rebuild their lives after surviving domestic violence.

An investment has been made in keeping these vulnerable women safe and to move families in these circumstances out of their homes is a false economy as it will cost further money to provide security as the new property, and this may provide a reduced level of safety, putting them at risk.  It is important to remember that on average two women every week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales – protecting abused women and their children is a matter of life and death, and we should always remember this.”

A’s claim is supported by evidence from the charity Women’s Aid on the prevalence of domestic violence and on the important function of Sanctuary Schemes in providing protection and preventing homelessness for those at risk. 

The Rutherford Appeal
Paul and Susan Rutherford care for their severely disabled grandson, Warren, in a special-adapted three bedroom bungalow in Pembrokeshire. Warren has a rare genetic disorder, Potokoi-Shaffer Syndrome, and is unable to walk, talk or feed himself and requires24 hour care. In the judgement handed down today, the Court found that the ‘bedroom tax’ discriminates against disabled children in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Both Paul and Susan have disabilities themselves and can only care for Warren with the help of paid carers who stay overnight on a regular basis. The couple was hit by the bedroom tax for their third bedroom which they need for the carers to stay in overnight and for storing disability equipment for Warren.  The current regulations allow for an additional bedroom if a disabled adult requires overnight care but not for a disabled child in the same situation. The Court found that this unlawfully discriminates against disabled children and cannot be justified.

The family had launched a judicial review challenging the ‘bedroom tax’ which reduces housing benefit payments to tenants deemed to be under-occupying their accommodation.  They have been receiving discretionary payments from the local authority to cover the shortfall in rent but the Court found this policy was not adequate as there is no guarantee it would continue to be available to them in the future.

Lord Thomas CJ found that the failure of the Secretary of State to make provision in the regulations for overnight carers of disabled children amounted to unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was “very difficult to justify the treatment within the same regulation of carers for disabled children and disabled adults, where precisely the opposite result is achieved: provision for the carers of disabled adults but not for the carers of disabled children.” The Secretary of State had also failed to have regard to the best interests of disabled children when devising the regulations.

Mike Spencer, solicitor at the Child Poverty Action Group, who acts for the Rutherfords, said,

‘We are delighted that disabled children will finally be entitled to the same treatment as disabled adults.  It is absurd to have a situation where children like Warren might have to go into residential care at vast cost to the taxpayer because their families cannot pay for the housing they need.  Instead of putting this family through the ordeal of a further appeal, the Government should now think seriously about amending the regulations to protect severely disabled children.’

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