Strasbourg court rules against UK in ‘bedroom tax’ case
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled that the UK government discriminated against victims of domestic violence by reducing their housing benefits.
In October 2019, the ECtHR ruled that the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ unlawfully discriminates against vulnerable victims of domestic violence. The case of A v the United Kingdom concerned the effect of the bedroom tax policy on women living in ‘Sanctuary Scheme’ homes – properties which are 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. Her challenge was to the government’s 14 per cent reduction in housing benefit for ‘under-occupation’ of social housing, colloquially known as the bedroom tax. She claimed that the housing benefit regulations which introduced the scheme are discriminatory and have devastating consequences for her and her young son.
Under the bedroom tax, A and her son are only entitled to receive housing benefit for a two-bedroom property. However, they live in a three-bedroom property which has been specially adapted for them by the police under the Sanctuary Scheme. This includes a panic space and extensive security measures.
According to figures obtained in a freedom of information request from 79 local authorities, almost 1 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 people in the Sanctuary Scheme are women.
The ECtHR in October 2019 found that the bedroom tax unlawfully discriminates against A and those in her position. It also awarded A €10,000 because of the distress caused to her by the government’s policy.
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. The aim of the bedroom tax (to encourage people to leave their homes for smaller ones) was in conflict with the aim of Sanctuary Schemes (to enable those at risk of domestic violence to remain in their homes safely). The government did not provide any “weighty reasons” to justify the discrimination, so it was unlawful.
The court also noted 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.”
UK government’s failed appeal
In January 2020, the UK government sought to appeal the ECtHR’s decision to the Grand Chamber of the court, but this application has been refused and the judgment has now become final.
Rebekah Carrier of Hopkin Murray Beskine Solicitors, A’s solicitor, is now calling on the government to execute the court’s judgment and end the discrimination without delay.
Ms Carrier said: “Our client, whose life is at risk, has suffered great anxiety as a result of the bedroom tax and the uncertainty about this case. She is a vulnerable single parent who has been a victim of rape and assault, and she lives in a property which has been specially adapted by the police, at great expense, to protect her and her child.
“She has had to fight the government for seven years to protect her right to be safe in her own home. She is delighted that after such a long battle, the European Court of Human Rights has recognised the impact that the bedroom tax is having on her and others like her, and the Grand Chamber has refused the government’s last-ditch attempt to appeal this finding.
“We now call on the government to take swift action 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. The Domestic Abuse Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, is the obvious route to correct this injustice and protect A and others in Sanctuary Scheme homes.”