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Updated: Supreme Court rewrites rules on vulnerable homeless

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Councils cannot consider their own financial pressures when deciding whether to accept an applicant as a vulnerable homeless person, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The judgment, in cases involving Solihull MBC and Southwark LBC, also significantly widened the grounds on which a single applicant could be deemed vulnerable, and therefore eligible to be housed by the local authority.

Judges said that the correct comparison for vulnerability was between an applicant and an ‘ordinary person’ facing homelessness, not with a vulnerable person who was already homeless.

Experts said this would mean that councils would have to accept more people for support, since homeless people tended to become increasingly vulnerable, and thus a new applicant rarely appeared to be comparatively more vulnerable.

But despite this potential cost pressure, the court said councils could not consider the impact on their resources.

The judgment said a council’s duty in this respect “is not to be influenced or affected by the resources available to the authority”.

“Once they have determined the status of an applicant…the fact that the authority may be very short of money and/or available accommodation cannot in any way affect whether an applicant is in priority need,” it said.

The court allowed the appeal of Patrick Kanu against Southwark but rejected that by Sifatullah Hotak on technical grounds, although court president Lord Neuberger urged Southwark to reconsider his case.

Craig Johnson’s appeal against Solihull failed on the grounds he would not have been deemed vulnerable even had the correct test been used.

A Solihull statement said: “The appeal follows Solihull council’s decision that Craig Johnson did not have a priority need for accommodation.

“This means that he was not found to be significantly more vulnerable than an ordinary person who happened to be in need of accommodation. This decision has now been found to be right by the Supreme Court.”

Southwark’s cabinet member for housing, Richard Livingstone (Lab) said the hearing had been an “important test case”.

“Southwark, along with all councils, previously followed national guidance.  The judgements today make it clear that this guidance had some shortcomings and did not always result in the best decisions being made for homeless people.  We fully accept the Supreme Court’s findings, which will affect how all councils deal with future homelessness decisions,  and we look forward to clearer guidance being issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government.”

Solicitor Giles Peaker, who acted for the homelessness charity Crisis, said: “This case is very significant as the law as understood since the 1990s has effectively gone.

“Instead of comparing a vulnerable applicant with someone who is actually homeless they must be compared with an ordinary person facing homelessness.

“‘Ordinary person’ is not defined but people who were homeless for some time were likely to have increased problems of depression and self-harm, for example, and applications were having to try to prove they were even more vulnerable than that.”

Mr Peaker said the ruling should mean that more applicants had to be accepted by councils, who “now cannot take their own resources into account, that is very clear”.

Stuart Hearne, legal adviser at the Cambridge House Law Centre, who acted in the two Southwark cases, said he hoped councils would welcome the judgment’s clarity on who they must assist.

He said: “Local authorities were having to compare homeless applicants with other homeless people to consider who is more vulnerable.

“It is not in anyone’s interest, including that of local authorities, that people who have disabilities or mental health issues should not be housed or left street homeless.”

*This story was updated on Wednesday afternoon after responses were were received from Southwark and Solihull councils

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