Law Report: Housing interview must be sympathetic: Regina v Tower Hamlets London Borough Council, Ex parte Khatun - Queen's Bench Division (Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, deputy High Court judge), 30 September 1993

A homeless person applying to a local authority for accommodation should, when being interviewed, be treated sympathetically and be given ample opportunity to have present at any interview some person who is able to assist and advise him.

Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC quashed the council's decision that the applicant was intentionally homeless.

The applicant, a married woman with a daughter, aged seven, who had been living here went to her parents' home in Bangladesh in 1990. While there twin boys were born and she remained there until June 1992 when she returned to Britain to the home of her parents-in-law, where she had previously lived. After a few days she applied to the council's homeless person unit, stating she had been asked to leave the premises.

Alison Grief (Martin Michaels & Co); Ashley Underwood (Borough Solicitor) for the council.

SIR LOUIS BLOM-COOPER QC said that whether the stay of two years rendered the applicant's occupancy her last settled accommodation was a point that was difficult enough for lawyers and housing department administrators to comprehend, never mind a non-English speaking woman from an ethnic minority.

However, the conduct of the two interviews were so unsatisfactory and led to so much unfairness in the decision-making process that the decision should be quashed. The court was barely restrained from concluding that the flavour of the process did not reflect a case of an applicant claiming an entitlement to a social benefit, but rather a person being interrogated about some misdeed warranting a probing inquiry.

The key to the proper approach to the manner in which interviews of applicants for permanent accommodation as homeless persons should be conducted was encapsulated in the single word 'sympathetically'. That word denoted a sense of fellow-feeling. Cross-examination, hostile questioning, adverse comment or indication of a likely adverse decision were all inappropriate postures.

The local authority should give the applicant ample opportunity to have present someone able to assist or advise them. Was there any reason why the neighbourhood law centre or Citizens' Advice Bureau should not be advised of a coming interview for the purpose of arranging an adviser? Without such help there was an inequality of arms, such as to strip the process of any fair play. In this case the alchemy of a particular interviewer, a particular interpreter and a mode of questioning that did little, if anything, to favour the applicant, supplied the recipe of unfairness.

Ying Hui Tan, Barrister