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Local authority unlawfully fails to assess refugee family’s housing needs


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Too often, we all see clients who are at the mercy of the local authority housing system and who are shifted about from accommodation to accommodation with no real stability in their lives. This treatment only compounds the problems they already face following the reasons they fled their own country, the awful journey so many endured to get here and then the prolonged bureaucratic limbo of the modern asylum system.

In ZK v London Borough of Havering [2022] EWHC 1854 (Admin), the High Court found that a local authority were in breach of their duties by failing to properly assess a refugee’s needs for stable housing despite significant medical evidence being produced in support. 

ZK was a homeless refugee living with his wife and three young children in temporary accommodation provided by the local authority. In two previous judicial reviews, he had already successfully challenged the local authority’s decisions to give him a low priority banding and to place him into unsuitable accommodation. It had been agreed that his housing needs would be re-assessed.  

The judgment records that ZK had experienced “appalling” human rights abuses before coming to the UK and he suffered from various mental health issues, including PTSD, anxiety and depression. There was a raft of medical evidence including from psychologists, occupational therapists and psychotherapists, all agreeing that the constant moving about between accommodation was difficult for ZK to cope with and priority should be given to organising stable accommodation.

A housing officer prepared a revised personalised housing plan and concluded that the accommodation ZK was staying in was unsuitable but only because there were steps leading up to the property and the property was far away from the children’s school. However, it did not fully consider other reasons raised by ZK explaining why the accommodation was unsuitable including the need for secure and long-term accommodation. These were noted as “wishes” rather than needs in the housing officer’s report. 

ZK’s judicial review was based on:

  1. A failure to assess housing needs in terms of section 189A of the Housing Act 1996;
  2. A failure to provide ZK with a personalised housing plan complying with section 189A;
  3. The housing needs assessments which had already been carried out had failed to take into account relevant considerations 

Under section 189A, where a local authority is satisfied that an applicant is homeless, they are under a duty to asses housing needs including what accommodation might be suitable in the form of a Housing Needs Assessment (HNA). The HNA therefore provides the “nuts and bolts” including any key housing needs which help dictate what offer of accommodation should be made to the family. The court referred to previous High Court authority where there was an expectation that a housing officer would be able to pick up the file and be fully acquainted with the background and needs of an applicant. 

ZK’s lawyers argued that because the report by the housing officer referred to “wishes” rather than “needs”, a reasonable housing officer would not understand that ZK had a fundamental need for secure and settled accommodation. There was also no mention of other important considerations as ZK’s daughter having special educational needs. The local authority argued that a HNA was a “living document” and the fact that they were not mentioned in the report did not necessarily mean those explanations had been ignored. 

The court acknowledged that a report by a housing officer is not subject to the same rigour and analysis as, for example, a court drafted by solicitors or an Act of Parliament.  A “benevolent” approach needed to be taken when reviewing the housing file instead of nit-picking. 

However, even with that holistic view, the Court found the Housing Needs Assessment: 

…does not adequately set out the “nuts and bolts” of the Claimant and his family’s housing needs, as opposed to their wishes, such that a “reasonable and sensible housing officer” would understand what their key housing needs are in order to assess the suitability of current and future accommodation. As such, in my judgement, the Defendant has not fulfilled its duty under section 189A to provide the Claimant with a lawful HNA. 

The local authority was therefore ordered to make a lawful HNA and a personalised housing plan in compliance with its duties under section 189A. 

Because of the work we do, I think we can sometimes find ourselves numb to the impact that having to move accommodation regularly can have on our clients. 

In almost all asylum cases, there is usually going to be some sort of argument about why having settled and stable accommodation is important to allow refugee clients to rebuild their lives. Many clients will have experience or continue to experience mental and physical health issues, especially since some of them have gone through very traumatic experiences before reaching the UK. 

Practically speaking, the key takeaways are:

  1. Ensure that any Housing Needs Assessment or personalised housing plan takes into account all explanations by an applicant as to why their current accommodation might be unsuitable and what is needed in terms of suitable future accommodation. Any specific factors e.g ill health of family, distance from schools/hospitals, the need for settled and stable accommodation etc will all be relevant;
  2. Good quality medical evidence is likely to be a strong factor that any local authority will need to take into consideration when assessing an applicant’s housing needs.

Any local authority who ignore either of these points risk having their decision set aside on the basis that they have failed to take into account relevant considerations. 

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.