Single mother wins court battle after being forced into homelessness due to housing benefit shortfall

Supreme Court rules it was unlawful for Birmingham Council to try force mother-of-four to spend money intended for basic daily living needs on rent because housing benefit had been reduced

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 12 June 2019 12:41 BST
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A single mother who was forced out of her home because of a shortfall in housing benefit has won a legal challenge against her local council’s decision to treat her and her children as intentionally homeless.

The woman, known only as Ms Samuels, was using non-housing benefits, intended to cover other living costs like food and clothing, to cover the £35 weekly gap between her housing benefit and her rent.

When she lost her private tenancy, the mother-of-four approached Birmingham City Council for homeless assistance, explaining that she could not meet the shortfall.

Her request was refused and she was told to use her non-housing benefits to plug the shortfall. The council also decided she had intentionally become homeless.

Britain's highest court has now decided the council's approach was unlawful.

"I find it hard to see on what basis the finding of intentional homelessness could be properly upheld," Lord Carnwath said as he delivered the Supreme Court's judgement.

The court found that it was unlawful to force a tenant to spend money intended for basic daily living needs on their rent because housing benefit had been reduced.

Benefit levels were not designed to provide a surplus above subsistence needs for the family, Lord Carnwath said.

The court decided unanimously that benefit levels provided in respect of children were relevant to assessing what was reasonable by way of their living expenses.

Ms Samuels said she was "delighted" with the verdict.

"I have been fighting for so long for this, and have been suffering from the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen to me and the children." she said.

Charities also praised the decision.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Shelter, who intervened in the case, said it was right that the court ruled it wrong to expect families to rely on money they need for basic living expenses to pay their rent when their housing benefit can’t cover it.

Shelter's chief executive Polly Neate said it was an “important judgment for the future of the welfare system”.

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She added: “We’re very pleased to see the court recognise that it’s not lawful to expect families to rely on money they need for their basic living expenses to pay their rent when their housing benefit can’t cover it. When someone is forced to choose between rent and keeping their children fed, they cannot be viewed as ‘intentionally’ homeless when they choose the latter.

“We are hearing from more and more families who are choosing between rent and absolute necessities like heating and food. We urge the government to lift the freeze and make sure benefits cover at least the lowest third of the rental market.”

Martin Williams, a welfare rights adviser at the Child Poverty Action Group also welcomed the ruling.

“Benefit payments are set a bare minimum level for the basic essentials - no mother should have to see her children go short of essentials in order to pay the rent," he said. “As the Court also observed, there is a current shortage of reliable objective guidance on reasonable levels of living expenditure to assist authorities in assessing the affordability of housing. We hope that the government will now address that shortfall based on the principles endorsed by the Supreme Court.”

The ruling comes after figures showed child homelessness in England has surged by 80 per cent since 2010, with a new household now found to be homeless every five minutes.

Around 1.6 million adults rely on housing benefit to help with private rents, most of whom are women. But the benefit covers only a portion of private sector rent in 95 per cent of England’s broad rental areas.

Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, which are used to determine housing benefit entitlement for tenants renting in the private sector, have been frozen since April 2016, although private rents have risen by 22 per cent since 2010. So inflation means the freeze is a cut in real terms.

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