Not Every Breach of Housing Act Duties Amounts to a Human Rights Violation

Local housing authorities work under intense pressure with limited resources and it is sadly not a rare event for them to breach the legal duties they owe to homeless people in need. However, as a High Court decision showed, it is not every such breach that amounts to a violation of human rights.

HousesThe case concerned a mother who had fled to London from her native Ireland to escape an abusive marriage. She had three young children living with her, including a boy who suffered from spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. After living in bed and breakfast accommodation for a few months, they moved into a private rented property. The house was unsuitable for them as it was on two storeys and the disabled boy could not access the first-floor bathroom and toilet.

The mother applied to a local authority for accommodation, but almost three years passed before she and her family were allocated a single-storey property that was suitable for a wheelchair user. Only under threat of legal action had the council belatedly accepted that it had a duty to accommodate the family under Section 193 of the Housing Act 1996.

In those circumstances, the mother pursued a damages claim against the council on the basis that its breaches of statutory duty had violated her and her children’s human right to respect for privacy and family life. The Court found that the council had, for a period of about 14 months, breached its duty to the family in failing to take all reasonable steps to secure suitable accommodation for them. There had also been an unreasonable delay in recognising that such a duty existed.

The Court acknowledged that the mother had for years carried a heavy burden but noted that a fair balance had to be struck between her interests and those of the public in general. It could not be said that the council’s breaches of duty were flagrant or that the family’s needs had been wholly disregarded.

The council had faced formidable practical difficulties in finding a suitable home for the mother and children. The family had neither been divided, nor rendered street homeless, and family life had continued, albeit under considerable strain. In the circumstances, the Court found that the council had not acted incompatibly with the family’s human rights and dismissed the damages claim.