The UK Supreme Court

‘Rent or food’ case verdict could be far-reaching for councils

The Supreme Court has made a landmark ruling.
27 June 2019 , Katie Coyne

The Supreme Court has made a landmark ruling in the case of a single mother of four who was categorised by her council as ‘intentionally homeless’ because she didn’t use all her benefits to pay rent.

Birmingham City Council argued that Terryann Samuels could have used non-housing benefits to cover the £35 weekly gap between her housing benefit and rent, and was therefore ‘intentionally homeless’.

Samuels challenged the decision with the help of the Community Law Partnership. Five justices ruled unanimously in her favour, which could have far-reaching implications for local authorities as it makes clear their housing responsibilities.

Lord Carnwath’s ruling said: “Benefit levels are not generally designed to provide a surplus above subsistence needs for the family.” He concluded: “I find it hard to see on what basis the finding of intentional homelessness could be properly upheld”.

The Supreme Court also criticised the Legal Aid Agency for its “very substantial delay” in bringing the case to court.

Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said the charity was hearing from an increasing number of families forced into having to choose between rent and necessities such as heating and food. She said: “Housing benefit cuts mean it has not kept pace with rents for years – it now doesn't cover a modest rent in a shocking 97% of the country – and cases like this are the result.”

A spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: "Many councils are struggling to cope with rising homelessness and to find suitable accommodation for those in need. Right now, councils are housing over 200,000 homeless people in temporary accommodation, including over 120,000 children.

“It is crucial that the Government takes further action to prevent homelessness, including adapting welfare reforms by lifting the local housing allowance freeze, enabling councils to build more homes, and funding councils properly to prevent and respond to rising homelessness.

“We will consider the Supreme Court ruling carefully to assess any implications for local authorities and the communities they serve.”

Samuels’ case was supported by Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group charity. They provided evidence in the case, which showed disparity in local government approaches to determining affordability of accommodation in cases like this where tenants face a shortfall in housing benefits to cover their private rent. It is hoped the case will result in more consistency across the country.

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