European Court lands blow on the ‘Bedroom Tax’

Ruling has a big bearing on how Housing Benefit will be administered.

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With Parliament paralysed by Brexit, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has landed a major blow against the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and how housing benefit is administered.

Judges have ruled that the ‘reform’ discriminated against a domestic-violence victim who was forced to pay extra for her panic room.

The UK government has been ordered to pay the woman, who suffered rape and assault, €10,000 (£8,600) for the “damage she suffered”.

And lawyers have now demanded the DWP act to help nearly 300 women estimated to be in a similar situation.

There is a three-month window open to the DWP should it intend an appeal to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.

The ruling – which came by a 5-2 majority of judges – comes almost three years after the case brought by the victim known as ‘A’ suffered a defeat in the UK Supreme Court.

Ann Bevington of Hopkin Murray Beskine Solicitors, who acted for A, said: “These changes to housing benefit have had a catastrophic impact upon vulnerable people across the country.

“Our client, whose life is at risk, has suffered great anxiety as a result of the bedroom tax and the uncertainty about this case [and] is delighted that, after such a long battle, ECHR has recognised the impact that the bedroom tax is having on her and others like her.”

The case concerned the effect of the ‘bedroom tax’ policy on women living in ‘Sanctuary Scheme’ homes – properties specially adapted to enable women and children at serious risk of domestic violence to live safely in their own homes.

A is a victim of rape, assault, harassment, and stalking at the hands of an ex-partner, and her challenge was to the government’s reduction in housing benefit for ‘under-occupation’ of social housing – the ‘bedroom tax’.

She claimed the housing benefit regulations that introduced the scheme are discriminatory and have “devastating” consequences for her and her 11-year-old son.

Under the ‘bedroom tax’, A and her son are only entitled to receive housing benefit for a two-bedroom property, when they live in a three-bedroom property specially adapted for them by the police through the Sanctuary Scheme. It includes a ‘panic space’ and extensive security measures.

A’s housing benefit has been reduced by 14% because of the Bedroom Tax.

According to figures obtained in FoI responses from 79 councils, almost one in 20 households using the Sanctuary Scheme for people at risk of severe domestic violence have been affected by the under-occupancy penalty or bedroom tax, totalling 281 households across the country.

The vast majority of those in the Sanctuary Scheme are women.

In November 2016, a majority of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided that, while the government had a positive obligation to provide Sanctuary Scheme housing for women who need it, there had not been unlawful discrimination.

ECHR disagreed with the Supreme Court and found that the ‘bedroom tax’ unlawfully discriminates against A and those in her position.

In its judgment, the Court clarified the legal test applicable to discrimination claims in social security cases, explaining that, while Member States generally have a wide margin of appreciation in the context of economic and social policy measures, such measures must not violate the prohibition on discrimination.

Where a policy is introduced to correct an historical inequality, the Court will only intervene if the policy is “manifestly without reasonable foundation”.

However, outside this context, because the advancement of gender equality is a major goal in the member States of the Council of Europe, “very weighty reasons” must be given before gender discrimination could be regarded as lawful – with the same applying to disability discrimination.

The Court found that A was particularly prejudiced by the ‘bedroom tax’ because her situation was significantly different from other housing benefit recipients because of her gender, while the aim of the ‘bedroom tax’  in encouraging people to leave their homes for smaller ones was in conflict with the aim of Sanctuary Schemes.

As the UK government did not provide any “weighty reasons” to justify the discrimination, it was unlawful, with the Court noting that, in the context of domestic violence, “States have a duty to protect the physical and psychological integrity of an individual from threats by other persons, including in situations where an individual’s right to the enjoyment of his or home free of violent disturbance is at stake.”

“An investment has been made in keeping these vulnerable women safe and to move families in these circumstances out of their homes is a false economy, as it will cost further money to provide security as the new property, and this may provide a reduced level of safety, putting them at risk,” said Bevington.

We now call on the Secretary of State to take swift action in response to today’s ruling, and to change the rules to exempt from the bedroom tax the small but extremely vulnerable class of women and children who need the safety of a sanctuary scheme whilst they try to rebuild their lives after surviving domestic violence,” she said. 

  • A second Bedroom Tax case, involving a woman caring for her severely disabled daughter, did not succeed.

The claimant, known as JD, lives in a three-bed adapted home with her severely disabled daughter and alleged breaches over her rights to private life and discrimination after being charged more for the extra room.

But the judges said discretionary payments to plug the gap were a “proportional” way to deal with her case.

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