Mixed results for ‘bedroom tax’ challenge at Supreme Court
Two families who claimed that the removal of the spare room subsidy was unfair won their appeals against the UK government but five other claimants had their challenges dismissed.
The seven-justice panel made up of Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Sumption, Lord Carnwath, Lord Hughes and Lord Toulson considered the specific circumstances of each individual applicant.
The judges upheld the claims of Jacqueline Carmichael, who is disabled and cannot share a room with her husband, Jayson, as well as that of Paul and Susan Rutherford, who care for their 17-year-old severely disabled grandson in a specially adapted three-bedroom bungalow in Pembrokeshire, south Wales. Both had claimed discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ruling pointed out that housing benefit regulations allow claimants to have an additional bedroom where children cannot share a bedroom because of a disability and that this exemption should be extended - as in the case of the Carmichaels - to adults.
Lord Toulson, who read out the main judgment, said: “Mrs Carmichael cannot share a bedroom with her husband because of her disabilities … The Rutherfords need a regular overnight carer for their grandson, who has severe disabilities.” Subjecting them to the bedroom tax was therefore deemed “manifestly without reason”.
In relation to the other claimants, their need for an additional bedroom was not connected, or not directly connected, to their/their family member’s disability. Therefore, whilst there may be good reasons for them to receive state benefits to cover the full rent, it was not unreasonable for their claims to be considered on an individual basis under the DHP scheme.
The claim brought by a woman identified only as ‘A’, who is a victim of domestic violence, was dismissed by a majority of five to two justices.
According to the judgement, A had a strong case for staying in her current house; it has been adapted under the sanctuary scheme and she feels safe where she is. However, there is no automatic correlation between being in a sanctuary scheme and requiring an extra bedroom: the reason that A currently has an additional bedroom is that no two bedroom properties were available when she moved.
The Court had considerable sympathy for A as she has strong social and personal reasons for staying, however, these are unrelated to the property size. The fact that people may have strong reasons unrelated to the number of bedrooms, for wanting to stay in their property is taken account of through the DHPs. It therefore does not follow that A has a valid claim for unlawful sex discrimination.
Rebekah Carrier, a solicitor with the law firm Hopkin Murray Beskine, who represented A, said she would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. “My client has been subjected to the bedroom tax because she was allocated a three-bedroom house 25 years ago, through no choice of her own, due to a shortage of two-bedroom houses,” Carrier said.
“She is a vulnerable single parent who has been a victim of rape and assault. Her life remains at risk and she is terrified. As a result, she has been given the protection of a multi-agency network and had her home specially adapted by the police, at great expense.”
Lady Hale, who was in the minority, observed in her dissenting judgment: “The state has provided Ms A with such a safe haven. It allocated her a three-bedroomed house when she did not need one. That was not her choice. It later fortified that house and put in place a detailed plan to keep her and her son safe.
“Reducing her housing benefit by reference to the number of bedrooms puts at risk her ability to stay there. Because of its special character, it will be difficult if not impossible for her to move elsewhere and that would certainly put the state to yet further expense.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “It is welcome that the court found in our favour in five out of the seven cases. The court also agreed with our view that discretionary housing payments are generally an appropriate and lawful way to provide assistance to those who need extra help.
“In the two specific cases where the court did not find in our favour, we will take steps to ensure we comply with the judgement in due course. In most cases, local authorities are best placed to understand the needs of their residents, which is why we will have given them over £1 billion by the end of this parliament for discretionary housing payments to ensure that people in difficult situations don’t lose out.”
A full account of the judgements is available via our sister publication Scottish Legal News.