Councils or the Courts – Who reigns Supreme?

In the case of Samuels v. Birmingham City Council (2019), the councils’ duties to provide suitable accommodation to those declared homeless were explored by the supreme court. The Supreme Court investigates how far they must acknowledge the guidance given in legislation and from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the interaction between benefits and the council’s ultimate decision to provide aid.  The label of intentional homelessness came to light following the case with much criticism from the media, due to the fact it seemed almost impossible in reality.
Ms. Samuels Situation
In a privately rented house in Birmingham, Ms Terryanne Samuels and her 4 children were found to be short on their rent payment for the month by just over £150. This caused them to enter financial difficulties and with nowhere to turn following this, Ms Samuels made an application to the council declaring her and her children homeless.
Due to the fact that Ms Samuels was accompanied by her children and was reliant on social security benefits, she fell under the impression the council would fulfil their duty and provide new suitable accommodation to the family. The council’s response, however, was not what she was expecting. Birmingham council chose to interpret Terryannne’s situation as being “Intentionally homeless “claiming the shortfall could have been made up by other benefits and therefore she was owed nothing.
The Courts Involvement
This dispute was initially brought to the County Court where the decision was found to be in favour of the council. However, due to their being ambiguity and a sense of injustice in not issuing any aid to the family, the dispute rose up the court hierarchy on appeal.
Judges consistently preferred the argument that the guidance given to councils was not binding and that they had the right to declare Terryanne had sufficient benefits that could have been repurposed to be put towards housing (when the actual benefit intended for this cause ran out). Upon reaching the highest domestic court (the Supreme court), the overall perception greatly varied from those previous. A unanimous judgement was passed, declaring that the council was bound by duty to help Ms Samuels as instructed by the purported guidance and that therefore she was owed reparation.
But why did this dispute cause such conflict that it ascended to the highest court of the land?
The Councils Perception
The underlying legal question established via the arguments of Birmingham council was declared to be:
Does the 1996 act permit for interpretation as to include benefits for purposes other than housing when assessing expenses in relation to suitability of accommodation?
Birmingham City Council argued that relevant expenses had to be considered as a whole and therefore without purpose. The 1996 Housing act and 2006 guidance were deemed only to be “recommendations” upon how they carry out their work and so in Terryanne’s case, they were able to extend the definition to cover all her benefits in considering if her previous residence had been suitable. When assessing her case before the legal trial a council officer declared that her living allowance of £750 was “excessive even for a family of that size.” Hence, they proposed that benefits intended for general living could have been used to prevent the shortfall and therefore there was no need for her to leave this property (making her, by definition intentionally homeless).
Essential Guidance or a Mere Recommendation?
The (S.191) Housing Act 1996 establishes the council’s duty to secure living arrangements for those declared homeless providing they have not done so intentionally.
It defines intentional homelessness to be as follows: “Whether they deliberately did or failed to do anything in consequence of which they cease to occupy accommodation which was available for their occupation and which it would have been reasonable for them to continue to occupy.”
Therefore, the courts would have had to decide if Terryanne met this test.
Similarly, the Homeless Order 1996 declares that the factors that must be considered when deciding the suitability of accommodation that was occupied by the tenant before the declaration of homelessness.
They include:
  • financial recourses available
  • salary/fees
  • social security benefits
The Supreme Courts Response
The Supreme Court dissented from the findings of the other courts and declared that Ms. Samuels should not have to use her other living expenses. It was supported that she should not have to choose between paying for accommodation and feeding her 4 children as this hindered her ability to live securely and depend upon her benefits, diminishing their purpose. The justices detailed that they agreed with the defenses reasoning that all expenses are included however due to the absurdity and hardship this would cause this was not the right action to take.
The court also decided that her living expenses were not excessive as previously stated by the council but rather “reasonable.” By the council’s standard it fulfilled the definition of reasonable and therefore should not be limited. Lord Carnwath who delivered the judgement blamed ambiguity in the limited guidance given to the councils. He also showed distaste for the concept that anyone can be found intentionally homeless as mitigating factors are often at play.
This judgement was praised by the media for the hardship it prevented and depicted the courts as generous in its choice to be broad in application, rather than to acknowledge only the strict wording of the guidance that may have been done in a literal approach.
Moving forward?
With the judgement of this case creating a positive outcome many hope it is a guiding light moving forward in relation to how the law interacts with the benefit system. However, this case may just be the tip of the iceberg. Many now want to see the monitoring of cases where people are wholly reliant on benefits so that they are treated with the same sympathy as Ms. Samuels. Will councils begin to take a more worldly perspective in their assessment of cases like this one, or will they maintain that they have full discretion over how they apply their functions? Lord Carnwath stated he hopes councils take guidance from this case a request that appears to be shared by many members of the public.

This article was originally written by Emily Counter for The Student Lawyer. The Student Lawyer is a fantastic source of free information for law students.

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