We have issued a press release outlining the success of a recent legal action brought by our client against Camden Council. The challenge was to Camden’s practice of accommodating homeless women fleeing domestic abuse in shared hostel accommodation with men. 

This is a significant victory as we know that this practice is prevalent across UK local authorities

The challenge concerned both the failure of councils to properly consider and prioritise the needs of survivors and the significant cuts which have been made to women-only services, accommodation provision and specialist organisations.

In light of this victory, we call on local councils to address the specific needs of domestic abuse survivors and to stop carrying out the government’s austerity policies. What this means in practice is that, rather than accepting a budget dictated by central government, councils should set a ‘needs budget’ that takes into account the needs of women, particularly those from BAME and working-class backgrounds. Councils and our elected representatives need to stand up and fight back against austerity!

We would like to extend our thanks to the following organisations for their solidarity and invaluable assistance in bringing this challenge: Unite the Union (Housing Workers Branch); Southall Black Sisters; Solace Women’s Aid; NIA; and LAWRS.

See below for the press release.

PRESS RELEASE

Victory in legal challenge to Camden Council’s practice of accommodating homeless women fleeing abuse in shared hostels with men

Survivors and specialist organisations have achieved a significant victory in Camden, with the council responding positively to our client’s legal challenge.

The case was brought in order to challenge the lawfulness of placing homeless women who have fled domestic violence in shared accommodation with men. Women’s Aid Federation of England, represented by Bhatt Murphy, intervened in the litigation to demonstrate that this case was not an isolated incident.

Camden Council has agreed to take account of our arguments when assessing whether any homeless applicant is a survivor of domestic abuse an when reviewing the commissioning and provision of accommodation for the homeless, its use of mixed gender accommodation in emergency cases.

Background

Our client is a vulnerable survivor of serious domestic violence.  She has a long history of experiencing sexual and physical abuse and suffers from significant mental ill health. She became homeless and approached Camden Council for support. The Council then accommodated our client in a shared hostel with men.

A challenge was brought on behalf of our client around the lawfulness of that placement, not only in our client’s individual case but also more generally in cases where survivors approach the council for homeless support.

We relied on specialist evidence from Women’s Aid, medical practitioners and frontline organisations including Solace Women’s Aid, Southall Black Sisters and Nia. That evidence very clearly demonstrated that survivors of domestic abuse, and gender-based violence more generally , have particular needs and that it will therefore very often be inappropriate and indeed damaging for such women to live in mixed-gender hostel accommodation with men.

The evidence also showed that domestic abuse survivors regularly suffer from trauma-related mental health conditions as a result of the abuse they have suffered. Mixed-gender accommodation can trigger such trauma.

Settlement

The case settled shortly before trial. As part of that settlement, Camden Council paid our client a significant sum in compensation and agreed to take account of representations from both our client and Women’s Aid when reviewing the commissioning and provision of accommodation for the homeless, including in formulating:

  1. The process by which homeless applications are conducted and in particular whether the Council should make specific provision to establish whether any homeless applicant is a survivor of domestic abuse; and
  • The use of mixed gender accommodation in meeting the interim housing duty under s 188 of the Housing Act 1996.

We, acting on behalf of our client, and Bhatt Murphy, on behalf of the intervenor, have now submitted representations to the council in support of its review. When carrying out the review we have advised that the council must, in order to act in accordance with its Equality Act obligations:

  1. Make specific provision to establish whether any homeless applicant is a survivor of domestic abuse by amending the proforma questionnaire to include a question as to whether the applicant has a history of gender-based abuse, and if they would require single-sex accommodation.
  • Upon establishing a), the Council must presume that mixed accommodation (including cluster accommodation) is not suitable for survivors of gender-based abuse. Unless the survivor is asked and consents to such a placement, any offer of accommodation in mixed accommodation will fail to meet the interim housing duty under s.188 of the Housing Act 1996.
  • In order to suitably house survivors of domestic abuse, the Council must anticipate the need for single-sex accommodation and make advance provision of interim and temporary accommodation accordingly.

We await the council’s updated policies and procedures in this area.

Stephanie Harrison QC and Nick Bano of Garden Court were instructed by the Public Interest law Centre representing the Claimant.

Shu Shin Luh of Doughty Street Chambers and Sophie Caseley of Garden Court Chambers were instructed by Bhatt Murphy representing the Intervenor.

Helen Mowatt, Solicitor at PILC:

“The council’s response to the litigation is a step in the right direction. However, we know that accommodating homeless women fleeing abuse with men is an issue across the majority of boroughs in the country. All councils must presume that mixed accommodation is unsuitable for homeless applicants that have any history of domestic abuse. We will keep a watchful eye on the publication of the council’s policy in this area and will continue to fight against all councils that place women in accommodation with men when they are at their most vulnerable.”

Olivia Anness, Solictor at Bhatt Murphy:

“For too long homeless women fleeing domestic abuse have been placed in unsuitable mixed-sex accommodation by their local authorities. This case has highlighted the devastating impact that this practice has on a survivor’s ability to recover. It’s time for all local authorities to review their practice and ensure that women fleeing abuse have access to single-sex accommodation when they need it most.”

Lucy Hadley, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Women’s Aid Federation of England:

Women’s Aid intervened in this case to demonstrate that this survivor’s experience is far from an isolated incident. Women escaping domestic abuse face huge barriers in accessing the safe housing and support they need – this is caused by a severe lack of refuge spaces, funding cuts and a lack of affordable long-term housing. This forces survivors to present as homeless. But we know that far too often they are placed in unsuitable and unsafe mixed-sex accommodation. Our evidence demonstrated that this is happening in local authorities up and down and the country, with devastating impacts on women escaping from trauma and abuse. We are pleased that Camden will be reviewing their practice as a result of this case, but we continue to call for government guidance to clarify that all homeless women escaping domestic abuse should be routinely offered women-only accommodation for their safety.”