Public Interest Law Centre

public law | human rights | legal action

18Apr 2024

High Court rules Westminster Council’s housing policy unlawful

18th April 2024|

But child survivor still waiting to be reunited with her mum in safe home.

PILC is relieved that the High Court has ruled a housing policy that denied a child survivor of sexual abuse and her mother a safe home to be unlawful. 

The Court found Westminster’s ‘reciprocal transfer’ policy to be indirectly discriminatory against women and girls and a breach of the council’s public sector equality duty. It also found the decision to refuse a reciprocal transfer in breach of the council’s obligations to properly consider the needs of a child.

The Background

The Claimant is a social housing tenant in a London borough. Whilst at that property, the Claimant’s child daughter was sexually abused by a neighbour over a number of years. 

As a result, the daughter has experienced significant mental health issues, including drug use and self-harm. She has suffered a period of homelessness and has been excluded from school. 

Since learning of the abuse in 2021, the Claimant has worked tirelessly to find her and her daughter somewhere safe to live, away from the abusive neighbour. She has faced extraordinary barriers in doing so. 

To safeguard her daughter, the Claimant has been forced to send her to live with relatives abroad. The Claimant meanwhile continues to live next to her daughter’s abuser. 

Unable to find a safe property within their own stock, the Claimant’s social housing provider contacted Westminster to request what’s known as a reciprocal transfer. That request was refused by Westminster on the basis that they would not allow the family to ‘queue jump’ those in other priority groups. 

It was this decision that we sought to challenge.

The Legal Challenge

Survivors fleeing domestic and sexual abuse are often unable to return home. For council and housing association tenants, fleeing accommodation can result in a loss of social housing altogether. With only 12% of those fleeing domestic abuse subsequently being granted social housing, this loss is often permanent. 

Reciprocal transfers enable social tenants who are at risk of abuse or violence to move to a safe area while retaining their tenancy. 

Women are disproportionately more likely to need a reciprocal housing transfer than men. The Pan-London Housing Reciprocal Scheme published data showing that almost 9 out of 10 applicants under the scheme are women, and 63% of those were fleeing some form of violence against women and girls. 

Westminster’s policy on reciprocal transfers is contained in paragraph 5.3 of their Housing Allocation Scheme, and imposes significant obstacles to those seeking to obtain a reciprocal transfer.

The Claimant’s case was that the policy fails to ensure that those forced to flee across boroughs to escape domestic and sexual abuse would be adequately protected. 

We sought to challenge the reciprocal transfer policy, and the refusal of our client’s reciprocal transfer under that policy, on the following grounds: 

  • That the policy indirectly discrimination on the basis of sex contrary to Equality Act 2010, s19; 
  • That there was a failure to comply with the public sector equality duty under Equality Act 2010, s149; 
  • That there was a breach of the Claimant’s rights under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (read with Article 8); 
  • That Westminster had failed to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under Children Act 2004, s11; and
  • That Westminster Council had unlawfully ‘fettered its discretion’ in relation to those seeking a reciprocal transfer.

The Judgment

The Court found that Westminster’s reciprocal transfer policy effectively imposed a residence requirement, subjecting those who were not Westminster tenants to a more onerous set of conditions than those who were Westminster tenants. 

In the absence of any evidence filed by Westminster to indicate otherwise, the Court found that Westminster was not compliant with its public sector equality duty in respect of the reciprocal transfer policy. The Court also found that the policy was indirectly discriminatory on the basis of sex and that Westminster had failed to adequately justify that discrimination. 

The Court concluded that there had additionally been a failure to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the Claimant’s individual case.  

In light of the finding that both the policy and the decision were unlawful, the Court did not reach a conclusion on the other grounds. 

The Court ordered that Westminster: 

  1. Review its reciprocal transfer policy and as part of that review undertake an equality impact assessment, taking into account representations made by the Public Interest Law Centre;
  2. Reconsider the Claimant’s application for reciprocal transfer within 28 days, as though she were a tenant of Westminster; and 
  3. Pay the Claimant damages. 

A Warning to Other Local Authorities

Far more needs to be done by local authorities nationally to ensure that survivors of domestic and sexual abuse are able to maintain their social housing when fleeing abuse. 

PILC’s Sam Tippet said “It’s a relief that the Court has found Westminster Council’s policy unlawful. We hope that the council now make due amends, and find this family a safe place to live as a matter of urgency.”

He added: “Time and time again those fleeing abuse are being forced by councils to give up social housing. Survivors are having to fight to save their housing security at a time when they are suffering extreme trauma and fear. Councils must take responsibility and properly protect survivors when they most need it, instead of causing them further harm and distress.” 

Our client was represented by counsel Stephanie Harrison KC and Nadia O’Mara of the Garden Court Public Law Team with Franck Magennis previously instructed as junior counsel.

Too often, local authorities and housing associations fail to safeguard tenants who are escaping abuse. 

PILC aims to hold housing associations and local authorities to account so they can’t deny those fleeing abuse the right to somewhere safe to live.

If you need advice or representation, contact 

22Sep 2022

PILC domestic abuse report and campaign launched 

22nd September 2022|

Image: Nicobobinus – licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Tonight sees the launch of our new report and campaign around the systemic ‘gatekeeping’ by local authorities of housing support for domestic abuse survivors.

Housing is one of the major barriers facing women and girls fleeing abuse. Most domestic abuse survivors have the legal right to access emergency housing and longer-term safe and secure accommodation.

Yet systemic ‘gatekeeping’ (the placing of bureaucratic or other obstacles in the way of those seeking statutory support) across local councils means many survivors are unable to access the help they so desperately need. 

Our report, authored by PILC’s Isabella Mulholland, is based on original research, including casework and litigation undertaken by the law centre over the past three years, as well as witness testimonies from survivors and frontline domestic violence advocates across all thirty-two London boroughs.

PILC has written a legal submission to Simon Clark MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Levelling Up, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, highlighting the findings of the research.

The letter calls on the Secretary of State and the Mayor to commission an independent investigation into local authorities’ widespread failure to provide housing support to domestic abuse survivors.

As our research shows, the systemic ‘gatekeeping’ of housing support for victims of domestic abuse is placing survivors at risk of further abuse and retraumatisation.

Key findings from our report include the following:

  • The ‘gatekeeping’ of housing support for domestic abuse survivors is a systemic issue across London local authorities
  • ‘Gatekeeping’ by councils takes a variety of forms, including: long (and sometimes unlawful) delays in making decisions around housing for survivors; unsuitable offers of temporary and long-term accommodation; the failure to provide emergency accommodation to survivors and their children; the imposition of unlawfully high evidence thresholds before support is provided; failure to apply the statutory definition of domestic abuse; the application of value judgements by housing officers; survivors being wrongly instructed to stay in or leave their borough; and the refusal of support until there is a threat of legal action
  • Council ‘gatekeeping’ is having a serious impact on survivors, with some being forced to remain in properties where they are at risk or having no option but to return to the perpetrator of domestic abuse
  • ‘Gatekeeping’ across London local authorities has worsened over the last decade as a consequence of austerity and a chronic shortage of social housing

The full report can be downloaded here.

29Jun 2022

Call for help with domestic abuse campaign

29th June 2022|

Image: Leo Reynolds (CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

In the next few months PILC will be launching a campaign to end London local authorities’ gatekeeping of housing for domestic abuse survivors.

Housing is one of the major barriers facing women and girls fleeing abuse. Gatekeeping—the placing of bureaucratic or other obstacles in the way of those seeking statutory support—is systemic across London local authorities and has got worse over the last decade as a consequence of austerity and a chronic shortage of housing stock.

It is common for survivors to be pushed from pillar to post and experience long delays before being housed. Advocacy from a support worker is often needed for them to have any chance of accessing housing. As a result of these failures on the part of local authorities many survivors remain stuck in unsafe and unsuitable housing where they are at risk of further abuse. 

PILC is working to change this. Our new campaign aims to highlight the widespread and systemic gatekeeping that DA survivors and VAWG survivors face from local housing authorities.

As part of the campaign, we’d like to speak to survivors who’ve faced barriers when trying to access housing through their local council.

We want to tell the stories of survivors who have faced multiple obstacles in accessing housing: from facing unlawful delays to being told they do not have sufficient evidence of abuse or being required to report abuse to the police before making a housing application.  

We would like to interview survivors from the following London local authorities:

  • Brent
  • Ealing
  • Greenwich
  • Haringey
  • Kingston upon Thames
  • Merton
  • Sutton
  • Wandsworth

Please email if you or someone you support would be willing to speak to us about their experience. Please note that we intend to keep all information confidential.

10Aug 2021

New PILC briefing on Domestic Abuse Act

10th August 2021|

We have today published a briefing on the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, many of whose provisions are now in force. Our explainer focuses on the six main changes in the act that relate to housing. We hope the briefing will be of use to advisors, frontline workers and survivors.

One major concern regarding the Domestic Abuse Act is that it does not cover survivors of abuse who have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). Such survivors find it very difficult to access housing support and may be forced to remain in abusive homes.

We will be publishing a further briefing on NRPF, DV and access to housing in the near future.