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High Court judge issues mandatory order requiring London borough to secure suitable accommodation for family within 12 weeks

The London Borough of Lambeth has been told by the High Court to find accommodation for a family within 12 weeks even though the applicant wishes to live outside the borough.

In Bell, R (On the Application Of) v London Borough of Lambeth [2022] EWHC 2008 (Admin) Mrs Justice Hill ruled in a case brought by Princess Bell that Lambeth had not taken all reasonable steps to secure accommodation for her and her children.

Ms Bell challenged Lambeth’s failure to provide her with suitable accommodation under the duty in section 193(2) of the Housing Act 1996.

Hill J said Lambeth accepted that it had been in breach of this duty since 10 December 2020 and “the central issue remaining between the parties is whether the court should grant the claimant any relief, in particular the mandatory order she seeks requiring Lambeth to secure suitable accommodation for her within 12 weeks”.

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Ms Bell is a single parent living a son aged 14, a daughter aged 12 and another son aged two.

She has been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and asthma.

The daughter and older son have neurological conditions, global developmental delay, learning disabilities, four limb motor disorder, epilepsy, variable heart block, a heart condition and low muscle tone.

Both are also registered blind, use non-verbal communication, are incontinent, fed by tube and use wheelchairs. They also have respiratory vulnerabilities and sleep disturbance patterns, the judge noted.

In June 2020 a Lambeth occupational therapist noted that both children have high needs, large equipment requirements, need hoisting for all transfers and are fully dependent on carers.

She recommended they should live in standard wheelchair property with essential amenities on one level or accessible by a  lift and made various other stipulations.

In August 2020 Ms Bell applied to Lambeth for accommodation under the homelessness provisions contained in Part VII of the 1996 Act.

Lambeth provided her with accommodation intended to be interim but where she still lives.

By December 2020, Lambeth accepted the accommodation was unsuitable due to excessive damp, mould, a rodent infestation and defective heating.

Ms Bell said she did not want to live in Lambeth and Southwark because of risk of harassment from a former partner there and “indicated that for the purposes of the children's care and funding Lewisham, Croydon and Bexley would not be suitable”.

She would prefer Kent or the outer areas of Bromley or Greenwich and wanted to be away from inner London for the children's health.

Lambeth told the court Ms Bell was "in the strongest position she could be" for accommodation under Part VI of the 1996 Act but "competition is fierce” and properties of the type needed were rarely available.

Hill J noted three grounds brought for judicial review. These were that Lambeth was in breach of the main housing duty to secure suitable accommodation for Ms Bell and that offers of accommodation made failed to comply with the public sector equality duty. She also claimed Lambeth had failed to secure suitable accommodation in breach of its duty of section 11(2) of the Children Act 2004.

Lambeth argued it had taken all reasonable steps and Ms Bell was in ‘pole position’ on the housing register.

The judge said: “It was an unusual feature of this case that while the claimant sought housing from Lambeth, she had asked not to be rehoused in Lambeth because of the harassment she had experienced.

“Lambeth had sought to respect the claimant's preference not to be accommodated within the borough, albeit remaining unconvinced that she is at risk in the whole of Lambeth.”

The council also argued it would not be lawful to purchase, lease, construct or adapt property specifically for Ms Bell.

Hill J said the family’s present accommodation “falls fundamentally short of what Lambeth's occupational therapist concluded…was the ‘minimum’ level of suitability”.

She said the living conditions ”are having a series of very damaging impacts on the claimant and her children, particularly her two significantly disabled older children [whose] education and social development is also being very badly affected”.

Ms Bell had been left in the unsuitable accommodation for more than 20 months.

The judge said: “I accept [Ms Bell’s] submission that the conditions in which the claimant and her children are living are ‘intolerable’ and while this is not a pre-condition for a mandatory order, it is a powerful indication that one is called for.”

There had been “no evidence by Lambeth of the specific suitable accommodation that will be provided to the claimant or when it will be provided. The uncertainty around this issue must be further impacting on the claimant's mental health”.

Hill J said: “In my view the evidence is not robust enough to be satisfied that suitable accommodation will be provided shortly, such that a mandatory order would serve no purpose.”

She added: “A further reason for my conclusion that Lambeth has not taken all reasonable steps is that I accept [the] submission that the claimant's willingness to be rehoused virtually anywhere in England does provide Lambeth with significant flexibility.

“I do not consider that they have done all they reasonably could in this regard. I note that when the section 213 referral process was repeated in around May 2022 only three authorities were contacted.”

The judge said the combined effect of the public sector equality duty and section 11 of the Children Act 1989 meant local authorities must be proactive in ensuring that they have available to them housing that will meet the needs of families with disabled children under Part VII.

Hill J concluded: “For all these reasons I am satisfied that a mandatory order is appropriate. I therefore direct that Lambeth secure suitable accommodation for the Claimant under section 193(2) of the 1996 Act by no later than 12 weeks of the date of the order.”

Mark Smulian

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