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Can the Supreme Court stop austerity hitting the vulnerable hardest?

Credit to Rob Young. Used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Supreme Court

Last month the Supreme Court delivered a land mark ruling in homelessness law. The case of Mr Kanu, demonstrates how far some cash strapped Council’s had squeezed the definition of vulnerability in order to avoid treating those with a physical disability or mental health issues as having priority need. With a further 12 billion in benefit cuts on the horizon, widening inequality and rising homelessness we ask: can we rely on the law to protect our most vulnerable?

Under the Cameron administration, homelessness has now reached crisis point. Crisis and Shelter, report that rough sleeping has increased by 37% over the last three years, and last year more than 130,000 people approached their local authority as homeless (equivalent to the population of Cambridge).

Under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities have a duty to ensure accommodation for people who are homeless and in ‘priority need’. However housing shortages and spending restrictions have meant that the definition of ‘priority need’ had become the critical factor in determining who is entitled.

From 1998 a precedent referred to as the ‘Pereira Test’ had been used to assess an individual’s circumstances. Lady Brenda Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, summed this up: “We had reached the point where decision–makers were saying, of people who clearly had serious mental or physical disabilities, that ‘you are not vulnerable, because you are no more vulnerable than the usual run of street homeless people in our locality’”.

Last month’s judgement throws the state’s failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens into stark relief. In early 2011, an eviction notice was served to Mr Patrick Kanu (the successful appellant) and his family. Mr Kanu was already facing debilitating health issues, including mental health concerns. He initially sought support, but was rejected by the local authority. Later that year, Mr Kanu applied again when facing street homelessness. The Local Authority refused his application on the basis that he was not considered “in priority need”.

Mr Kanu approached Cambridge House, who provided Mr Kanu, with legal advice and representation.  By this time, Mr Kanu’s health was seriously deteriorating, suffering from chronic pain, hepatitis B, and levels of hypertension flagged by his GP as “dangerous”. Even more troublingly, Mr Kanu was experiencing severe mental health issues, including bouts of psychosis, attempted self-harm (often only prevented by Mr Kanu’s wife), and suicidal thoughts. Despite the Local Authority’s own Medical Assessment Service recommending his categorisation as in “priority need”, it decided that he was not sufficiently ‘vulnerable’ to be eligible for housing. The reason given was that Mr Kanu could cope with the effects of homelessness and in any event because he was married his wife could assist him.

The Housing Act 1996 states that Local Authorities have a duty to ensure that vulnerable homeless people who are not intentionally homeless are supported into housing. In Mr Kanu’s case this vulnerability was clearly significant. Yet, it was only after four years and against a backdrop of increasingly severe health issues that Mr Kanu’s won his appeal in the Supreme Court.  Sadly, the extent of Mr Kanu’s vulnerability became clear shortly after the Supreme Court judgement. Only 3 days later, Mr Kanu died aged 48 provoking the question: ‘How vulnerable is vulnerable enough?’

Under the new ruling, the Supreme Court has done away with the previous case law, including the Pereira Test, and specifically rejected some of the expressions used in homelessness cases such as “street homelessness” and “fend for oneself”. They have also abolished the use of statistics (a particularly blunt way of establishing ‘ordinary’ levels of vulnerability), and re-established the intended meaning of a “person who is vulnerable” under the Housing Act 1996. Critically, as Lady Hale commented, this means that vulnerability will now be established in comparison “with ordinary people generally”, not “ordinary homeless people”.

Despite the positive precedent established on May 13th, as local authorities brace themselves for the £12bn in welfare cuts stories like Mr Kanu’s are likely to become more rather than less common. The disturbing possibility is that, in the face of single-minded austerity, the law will not protect the most vulnerable. Either the government must accept the cost of caring or the stark reality of the cost of cutting – for our most vulnerable the threat of deprivation and destitution.

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