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When Do a Girlfriend and Boyfriend Become ‘A Couple’?

FlatsIn a case which drew a clear distinction between the everyday and legal meanings of the word ‘couple’, a man has won the right to claim housing and council tax benefits after his girlfriend moved temporarily to London to study the law.

The man and woman had a longstanding relationship and had lived together in a rented flat in the East Midlands. She moved temporarily to London to take up a position as an articled clerk. He remained living in the flat during her expected two-year absence and, after being made redundant, claimed the two forms of benefit.

The local authority ruled that he was not entitled to either benefit on the basis that he and his girlfriend were ‘living together as husband and wife’ and were therefore ‘a couple’ within the meaning of Section 137(1) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. The fact that they were temporarily living apart did not mean that they did not form part of the same ‘household’ and the aggregation of their two incomes disentitled the man from claiming benefits.

In ruling that the local authority’s decision was based on a misinterpretation of Section 137, the Upper Tribunal (UT) found that, although the man and woman were clearly ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’, that did not mean that they were living together as husband and wife. Each of them occupied separate homes and operated entirely independent domestic economies. Although they often visited each other at weekends, neither kept belongings for the other.

Although acknowledging that it is perfectly possible to have two properties and one household, the UT found on the evidence that the man and the woman were not ‘a couple’ for the purposes of Section 137. In those circumstances, the local authority’s appeal against an earlier decision of the First-tier Tribunal, to like effect, was dismissed.