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Westminster Council’s decision to re-house family 50 miles away is deemed unlawful

Supreme Court says councils must evidence decisions to move homeless out of area

2 April 2015

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The Supreme Court has unanimously quashed a decision by Westminster Council which made a mother of five homeless after she refused to accept an offer to re-house her 50 miles away in Milton Keynes.

The question arising from the appeal was whether it is lawful for a local housing authority to accommodate a homeless person away from the authority's own area where the person had previously been living.

The Supreme Court judgment, given by Lady Hale, said that the local authority had failed to discharge its duty to house the appellant because she had refused suitable accommodation.

'Broad factors'

Titina Nzolameso and her family were evicted from their home in November 2012 due to rent arrears arising from government cuts to housing benefit.

She was offered accommodation in Milton Keynes in January 2013, but did not accept the offer on the grounds of unsuitability and pursued a review of the council's decision through the courts.

Nzolameso had argued in the Court of Appeal that the council had failed to examine all the available housing in or near the borough when it made its decision and therefore acted unlawfully. However, in October 2014, the Court of Appeal refused her appeal against the decision by the council.

Moore-Bick J ruled the borough was allowed to take 'a broad range of factors' into account, including the 'pressures' on the council, when deciding what housing was available.

Following the court's decision, Nzolameso was made homeless after the local authority ceased to provide her with temporary accommodation. Her five children, aged between 8 and 14 years old, have been separated into three care homes.

However, the Supreme Court found that there had been no enquiries made to assess the practicability of moving the Nzolameso family to Bletchley or as to the children's needs, and no consideration was given to the duty to offer accommodation as close by as possible.

Suitable accommodation

Lady Hale said: 'The authority cannot show that their offer of the property in Bletchley was sufficient to discharge their legal obligations towards the appellant under the 1996 Act…I would add that they also cannot show that they have properly discharged their obligation under section 11 of the Children Act 2004. The appeal must be allowed and the decision that their duty to secure that accommodation was made available to her had come to an end must be quashed.'

As a result, the court decided that Westminster Council still owes the Nzolameso family a duty to secure suitable accommodation. The council are required to make the family a direct offer of suitable accommodation in or close to Westminster.

In addition, the court provided clarity on the application of section 11 of the Children Act 2004 of whether accommodation offered by a local authority is 'suitable'. The court said a local authority must have regard to the need to promote, as well as to safeguard, the interests of children when looking at the question of whether accommodation offered to a homeless applicant is suitable.

Budget cuts

Nzolameso's solicitor, Jayesh Kunwardia of Hodge Jones & Allen, commented: 'Westminster, like other councils, is under great financial pressure and I would urge politicians on the campaign trail to take note and think long and hard about council and social housing funding; budget cuts will not be tolerated by the courts as an excuse to move homeless families miles away from their friends and support networks. The court has issued very clear guidance today for local authorities.'

He continued: 'Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that there were over 15,000 homeless households in out-of-borough temporary accommodation, an increase of 123 per cent in three years. So this decision will give hope to many of those offered accommodation out of their current district and will put the onus on local authorities to be transparent about their decisions in such cases.'

 

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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