Many in the housing law world have been awaiting the decision in this case with interest, as it has potentially far reaching implications for homeless applicants and local authorities alike.
Ms Samuels is the young mother of four children. In 2011 she was living in privately rented accommodation in West Bromwich. She was in receipt of subsistence benefits in the form of income support, child benefit and child tax credits. She was entitled to full Housing Benefit (HB), but, as with many other privately renting tenants, there was a shortfall between her contractual rent and the amount she received in HB. This was because her rent was higher than the Local Housing Allowance, which limits the amount of HB payable depending on the size of a property.
The landlord told her that she would have to leave, as she could not afford to pay the full rent. She moved in with her partner for a time, and then, when the relationship broke down, applied to Birmingham City Council for assistance as a homeless person.
The Council decided that a deliberate act or omission on her part had caused the loss of accommodation which it would have been reasonable for her to continue to occupy.
The deliberate act or omission, in her case, according to the Council, was her failure to pay the rent.
Ms Samuels sought a review of the Council’s decision, on the grounds (amongst others) that she could not afford to make up the shortfall in her rent from her other income, which consisted entirely of subsistence level benefits for herself and the children.
Her review was unsuccessful. The reviewing officer upheld the decision, stating that “as a matter of normal household budgeting” Ms Samuels would be able to manage her finances to be able to meet her rent, and that he could not accept that “there was not sufficient flexibility” in her income to meet the shortfall.
Ms Samuels appealed to the County Court against this decision under s204 Housing Act 1996. HHJ Worster dismissed her appeal on 10th June 2014.
Ms Samuels was granted legal aid to appeal to the Court of Appeal. That appeal was dismissed on 27 October 2015.
Ms Samuels was refused legal aid to appeal further to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the prospects of success were poor. Her solicitors, CLP, and counsel, James Stark, disagreed, and an application for permission to appeal was made without the benefit of legal aid. On 19 February 2018 permission to appeal was granted by the Supreme Court. Legal aid was subsequently granted to pursue the appeal which was heard by the Supreme Court on 31 January 2019.
The central issue in the appeal was whether the council adopted the correct approach when it decided that the rent was affordable to Ms Samuels. The Supreme Court decided that it did not. Lord Carnwath, with whom the other four Supreme Court Justices agreed, said “benefit levels are not generally designed to provide a surplus above subsistence needs for the family” and concluded “I find it hard to see on what basis the finding of intentional homelessness could be properly upheld”.
Ms Samuels’ case was supported by Shelter and CPAG who intervened in the case in the Supreme Court. Evidence which they produced showed a wide disparity in the approach to affordability of accommodation taken by local authorities across the land, in cases such as this, where tenants in the private rented sector are faced with a shortfall between HB and rent, with only subsistence benefits to bridge the gap. This case may lead to a more consistent approach. Lord Carnwath said that, as Ms Samuels’ expenditure was within the amount regarded as appropriate by way of welfare benefits (i.e. the amount which she was entitled to receive in income support for own needs and child benefit and child tax credit for the needs of the children), “it is difficult to see by what standard that level of expenses could be regarded as other than reasonable”. It would appear to follow, therefore, that those in receipt of subsistence level benefits who spend those sums on living expenses, cannot in future be intentionally homeless if they do not divert some of that money to make up a shortfall between Housing Benefit and rent.
The full judgment is available on the Supreme Court website
See the article in the Guardian:-
See this article on BBC News online:
Lawyer in the News in the Law Society Gazette (1 July 2019):
Mike McIlvaney was also named as Lawyer of the Week in the Times on 20th June 2019.