November 28 2022

The European Court of Human Rights rules against government in ‘bedroom tax’ case

The European Court of Human Rights rules against government in ‘bedroom tax’ case

Justice in a time of austerity: a Justice Gap series

The European Court of Human Rights’ grand chamber has ruled against ministers in what has become known as the ‘bedroom tax’ case finding that ministers were discriminating against vulnerable victims of domestic violence by reducing their housing benefits.

Rebekah Carrier of the law firm Hopkin Murray Beskine Solicitors, acting as ‘A’s’ solicitor has said of ‘A’, ‘she is a vulnerable single parent who has been a victim of rape and assault, and she lives in a property which has been specially adapted by the police, at great expense, to protect her and her child. She has had to fight the UK Government for seven years to protect her right to be safe in her own home.’

‘A’, whose identity has been protected, is a victim of domestic violence, rape, assault and harassment at the hands of her ex-partner. ‘A’ and her son have been living in a property that was specifically adapted for those at risk of severe domestic violence. The adaptations included a panic room and extensive security measures.

This is known as the ‘Sanctuary Scheme’. Whilst ‘A’ was living in this specifically adapted property, the Department of Work and Pensions reduced her housing benefit by 14% under what is known as ‘under-occupation’ of social housing. The property that ‘A’ and her son lived in under the Sanctuary Scheme was a three bedroom property and under the ‘under-occupation’ rule, this means a reduction in housing benefits as they were deemed to only require two bedrooms. This is the bedroom tax.

According to information released in response to freedom of information requests, 79 local authorities said that almost one in 20 households under the Sanctuary Scheme have been affected by bedroom tax which comprises 281 homes across the UK occupied mostly by vulnerable women.

The bedroom tax, argued ‘A’ and her legal team, unlawfully discriminates against victims of domestic abuse. In October 2019 the European Court found in favour of ‘A’, ruling that the bedroom tax constituted unlawful discrimination. The decision found that A should not be treated as if she were any other recipient of housing benefits due to her increased risk to her personal safety.

The finding of the ECHR in this case focused on the aims of the bedroom tax compared to the aims of Sanctuary Schemes. The aim of a Sanctuary scheme is to provide a safe place for women who have suffered domestic violence. The aim of the bedroom tax is to encourage people to move to smaller homes.

According to the ECHR,  the government had ‘not provided any weighty decisions to justify prioritising the aim of the scheme over that of enabling victims of domestic violence to remain in their homes’. The court awarded ‘A’ €10,000 because of the distress caused to her. In January 2020 the UK Government sought to appeal the decision, this has now been rejected by the ECHR’s grand chamber.

A’s legal team has called the Domestic Abuse Bill which is described by A’s legal team as ‘the obvious route to correct this injustice and protect A and others in Sanctuary Scheme Homes.’ ‘For women and children experiencing domestic abuse, safe housing can be a matter of life and death’ commented Lucy Hadley, campaigns and policy manager at Women’s Aid Federation of England. ‘The government has committed to improving protection and support survivors through the new Domestic Abuse Bill, but current welfare policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ clearly undermine this aim. We call on the government to act now to protect all survivors in sanctuary schemes from this injustice, and assess all welfare reform policies on how they impact the safety of women and children experiencing domestic abuse.’