The Court of Appeal has unanimously quashed a council decision that said a man with mental health problems, at risk of self-harming and suicide, was not in priority need for housing when facing homelessness.
London law firm Osbornes Law, which acted for the 23-year-old, said the case throws the spotlight on the London Borough of Lambeth and other councils outsourcing decision-making and medical opinions relating to homelessness – as well as providing “much needed clarification” in relation to the test for priority need on grounds of vulnerability.
The court heard how the man faced homelessness when eviction proceedings were brought against his mother. He applied as homeless to Lambeth, which provided emergency accommodation pending a decision.
Originally, the council said the man was homeless and eligible for assistance, but not in priority need for accommodation because he was “not significantly more vulnerable when compared to an ordinary person when homeless”.
This decision, the court heard, was upheld on review by RMG Limited, to which Lambeth outsources such cases.
The decision was, in turn, upheld on appeal to the county court, despite expert evidence obtained by Osbornes Law from Dr Judith Freedman, whom the Court of Appeal called the man’s “distinguished consultant psychiatrist”, that his symptoms would be at risk of worsening if he were made homeless, and he would particularly “be at risk for command hallucinations, demanding that he would self-harm and/or hang himself.
Giving the unanimous ruling of the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Henderson found that the RMG review officer failed to explain why she had disregarded this evidence, instead preferring evidence from psychiatrists instructed by NowMedical who were “less highly qualified” than Dr Freedman and, more importantly, had never met or interviewed the man.
The ruling said the case officer appeared to have accepted that “further suicidality in response to various life stressors” was not unlikely, which was, on the face of it, consistent with Dr Freedman’s own prognosis.
But, in the next sentence, the case officer said she thought there was no current evidence to indicate that the man would experience harm or deterioration as a result of homelessness.
To the court, that appeared to amount to a rejection of Dr Freedman’s firmly stated opinion to the contrary, with no clear indication why the case officer took this view – especially as she appeared to accept the likelihood of further suicidality.
The court ordered that a new review decision is reached by a different and “experienced” review officer.
It also rejected Lambeth’s argument that the test for priority need should include examining whether the man’s particular circumstances would affect his functionality so as to make a noticeable difference to his ability to deal with the consequences of being homeless.
This, the court heard, would “import an extra layer of complexity into a test which is already far from simple to expound”.
Lambeth has outsourced the provision of medical advice in housing cases to NowMedical Limited and two of its psychiatric advisers’ prepared reports on the man’s application, but neither interviewed nor examined him – despite Osbornes’s request they do so.
The court noted this was NowMedical’s standard practice.
As well as not meeting the man, NowMedical’s advisers were said to have declined an invitation from Osbornes Law to discuss his case with Dr Freedman.
Speaking after the case, Edward Taylor, of Osbornes Law, said: “It is disappointing and worrying that we have had to fight so hard just to ensure that the clear psychiatric evidence in this case is properly considered.
“I hope that the judgement sends a strong message to councils to reach fair and rational decisions in future, which would achieve justice without expensive and time-consuming court proceedings.”