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Supreme Court ruling creates 'uncertainty' around intentional homelessness test

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Waltham Forest LBC was wrong to refuse a pregnant woman’s request for housing help on the grounds she had made herself “intentionally homeless”, the Supreme Court has ruled.

Lawyers acting for the woman claim the ruling has “enhanced” legal understanding of how the intentional homelessness test should be applied.

But leading housing barrister Jan Luba QC, who was not involved in the case, told LGC there was a “good deal of uncertainty” over what the judgment would mean in practice - and to how many cases it might affect.

According to today’s judgment Waltham Forest had refused Saba Haile’s application for housing support on the grounds she had made herself intentionally homeless by leaving a hostel for single people.

Ms Haile appealed unsuccessfully against the decision, arguing that she would have had to leave the hostel once her baby was born as the hostel was only for single people.

This meant she would have been unintentionally homeless at the time of the council’s assessment in August 2012, the ruling says.

“Had she still been living in the hostel, she would have had to leave, as only single persons were allowed to reside there,” a summary of the judgment states.

The council’s original decision had been upheld by the County Court and the Court of Appeal but was overturned by the Supreme Court with a majority judgment of four to one.

The case focused on interpretation of the 1981 case of Din vs Wandsworth LBC, which is regarded as the definitive case law on intentional homelessness.

In this case, the House of Lords rejected the appellant’s argument that he would have become homeless even if had not left his previous accommodation as he had been unable to pay his rent.

But handing down the judgment this morning, Lord Reed said the new case “appears to the majority of the court to be different”.

“It’s accepted that Ms Haile voluntary left the hostel at a time when she could reasonably have stayed, but then she had a baby.

“In these circumstances it can’t be said that her homelessness now is a result of her leaving the hostel before she had to.”

The judge said he was satisfied this did not undermine the purpose of legislation on intentional homelessness, which was to prevent individuals from “jumping the queue” for housing.

Ms Haile’s solicitor Tayyabah Ahmed, of the Hackney Community Law Centre, told LGC the ruling had “enhanced” rather than replaced Din.

She said it meant that when applying the intentionally homelessness test, councils must now consider the situation at the time of the assessment and whether they would have become unintentionally homeless by then anyway.

The centre’s senior housing solicitor Nathaniel Mathews said the judgment “further emphasises the strong legal protections that exist for pregnant women threatened with homelessness”.

Mr Luba said it appeared councils would now have to consider both why an individual became homeless in the first place and whether - by the time of the assessment - they would have become homeless anyway through no fault of their own.

He said it was a surprising result given how courts had been interpreting the law since the Din case and that the issue was likely to be further tested by the courts.

The ruling follows last week’s Supreme Court judgment on how local authorities should assess a newly homeless individual’s vulnerability.

That court significantly widened the interpretation of vulnerability and had said councils could not take into account their own financial situation or availability of housing locally.

Mr Luba added: “That case was clearly a game changer.

“This new case will change things to a degree in favour of homeless people - but who they are and how many, one can’t be sure.”

A spokesman for Waltham Forest said its decision in regards to Ms Haile had been based on “longstanding case law and the commonly held legal  interpretation of the rules”.

He added: “The Council respects the court’s decision and will of course reflect it in future cases.”

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