Gay carer fights for right to home after partner dies

Patricia Wynn Davies
Monday 09 June 1997 23:02

John Thompson and Martin Fitzpatrick lived together in a committed relationship for nearly 20 years, as much a loving couple as millions of married people up and down the country. But when Mr Thompson, the official tenant of their flat, died, the landlords lost little time in telling his partner to leave.

Having battled over the past nine years of Mr Thompson's life to provide the best possible care for him after he was paralysed in an accident, Mr Fitzpatrick is battling to keep his home.

Three Court of Appeal judges are to rule on a test case brought by 47- year-old Mr Fitzpatrick this week. It will be the first bid by a gay man to secure the same rights as heterosexuals to take over protected private-sector tenancies when the original tenant dies.

The case probes for the first time whether social attitudes have so changed that a long-standing union between two people of the same sex should be treated as living together "as husband and wife" for the purposes of the 1977 Rent Act.

Mr Fitzpatrick, who witnesses say provided an extraordinary level of care to Mr Thompson after his accident in 1986, claims in the alternative that the nature of their relationship made him "a member of the family" of Mr Thompson, so giving him similar though lesser rights under the 1977 Act.

The two men first met in 1969 and lived together in a stable and monogamous relationship in South African-born Mr Thompson's west London flat from about 1976. A notice-to-quit followed Mr Thompson's death in November 1994.

The landlords trade under the name Sterling Housing Association Limited. But when Mr Fitzpatrick first applied, unsuccessfully, at the West London County Court to take over the tenancy, they admitted that they were not a registered housing association and that the 1977 Act, which covers private- sector lettings, applied.

At the time of John Thompson's death the weekly rent of the basement and ground floor flat, on which Hammersmith & Fulham Council have spent thousands of pounds to adapt for his needs, was pounds 19.50, although the landlords could have applied to have it raised. The top two floors of the building have long stood empty.

Mr Fitzpatrick, a Dublin-born former Royal Navy serviceman who defies the "passive" gay stereotype, says that in the early days their relationship might have seemed unusual - "not only was I going out with a guy, but he was a black guy," he says. "We were so close ... I would say we were like hubby and wife. We were loving people. I just loved him so much."

Mr Thompson, a former silversmith, suffered severe and irreversible brain damage after a fall downstairs. Mr Fitzpatrick was treated as next-of-kin when his partner underwent two major brain operations. He felt Mr Thompson would never make progress in hospital and took him home to administer round-the-clock care that would last nine years. He gave up his mobile snack-bar business and became an expert full-time carer, keeping pressure sores at bay and learning how to change catheters. He devised a method of feeding Mr Thompson with a gastric tube through the nose - including pints of Guinness during trips out. He taught him to blink once for "yes", twice for "no". "I made him feel he was alive," Mr Fitzpatrick says.

Four-fifths of Greater London local authorities already allow equal rights of succession to same-sex couples. Guidance from the National Federation of Housing Associations urges its members to grant equal rights, and many associations do so.

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