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Court: European Court of Human Rights

European Court of Human Rights rules against United Kingdom in ‘Bedroom Tax’ case

A v The United Kingdom (Applications nos. 32949/17 and 34614/17)

This case discussed whether the ‘bedroom tax’ unlawfully discriminated against vulnerable victims of domestic violence.

The application to the European Court of Human Rights was brought by a woman known only as ‘A’ because her identity must be protected for her own safety. The case concerned the effect of the ‘bedroom tax’ policy on women living in ‘Sanctuary Scheme’ homes – properties which are specially adapted to enable women and children at serious risk of domestic violence to live safely in their own homes. A and her son are only entitled to receive housing benefit for a two-bedroom property. However, they live in a three-bedroom property which has been specially adapted for them by the police pursuant to a Sanctuary Scheme. This includes a panic space and extensive security measures. A’s housing benefit has been reduced by 14% because of the UK Government’s policy.

In November 2016, a majority of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided that, while the government had a positive obligation to provide Sanctuary Scheme housing for women who need it, there had not been unlawful discrimination.

Held: The European Court of Human Rights held that the ‘bedroom tax’ unlawfully discriminates against A and those in her position. The Court explained that while Member States generally have a wide margin of appreciation in the context of economic and social policy measures, such measures must not violate the prohibition on discrimination.  Where a policy is introduced to correct an historical inequality (e.g. allowing widowers equal access to widows’ pension), the Court will only intervene if the policy is “manifestly without reasonable foundation”.  However, outside this context, because the advancement of gender equality is a major goal in the member States of the Council of Europe, “very weighty reasons” must be given before gender discrimination could be regarded as lawful.  The same applies to disability discrimination.

The Court found that A was particularly prejudiced by the ‘bedroom tax’ because her situation was significantly different from other housing benefit recipients because of her gender. The aim of the ‘bedroom tax’ (to encourage people to leave their homes for smaller ones) was in conflict with the aim of Sanctuary Schemes (to enable those at risk of domestic violence to remain in their homes safely).  The Government did not provide any “weighty reasons” to justify the discrimination, so it was unlawful.  The Court also noted that in the context of domestic violence, “States have a duty to protect the physical and psychological integrity of an individual from threats by other persons, including in situations where an individual’s right to the enjoyment of his or home free of violent disturbance is at stake”.

European Court of Human Rights rules against United Kingdom in ‘Bedroom Tax’ case

A v the United Kingdom (App nos. 32949/17 and 34614/17)

This case concerned the effect of the ‘bedroom tax’ policy on women living in ‘Sanctuary Scheme’ homes – properties which are specially adapted to enable women and children at serious risk of domestic violence to live safely in their own homes. The judges were asked to decide whether the ‘bedroom tax’ unlawfully discriminates against vulnerable victims of domestic violence.

The appellant is a victim of rape, assault, harassment and stalking at the hands of an ex-partner. Under the ‘bedroom tax’, the appellant and her son are only entitled to receive housing benefit for a two-bedroom property. However, they live in a three-bedroom property which has been specially adapted for them by the police pursuant to a Sanctuary Scheme. This includes a panic space and extensive security measures. The appellant’s housing benefit has been reduced by 14% because of the UK Government’s policy.

In November 2016, a majority of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided that, while the government had a positive obligation to provide Sanctuary Scheme housing for women who need it, there had not been unlawful discrimination.

Held: The European Court of Human Rights disagreed with the Supreme Court and found that the ‘bedroom tax’ unlawfully discriminates against A and those in her position.

In its judgment, the European Court of Human Rights clarified the legal test applicable to discrimination claims in social security cases.  The Court explained that while Member States generally have a wide margin of appreciation in the context of economic and social policy measures, such measures must not violate the prohibition on discrimination.  Where a policy is introduced to correct an historical inequality (e.g. allowing widowers equal access to widows’ pension), the Court will only intervene if the policy is “manifestly without reasonable foundation”.  However, outside this context, because the advancement of gender equality is a major goal in the member States of the Council of Europe, “very weighty reasons” must be given before gender discrimination could be regarded as lawful.  The same applies to disability discrimination.

The Court found that A was particularly prejudiced by the ‘bedroom tax’ because her situation was significantly different from other housing benefit recipients because of her gender (paragraph 94).  The aim of the ‘bedroom tax’ (to encourage people to leave their homes for smaller ones) was in conflict with the aim of Sanctuary Schemes (to enable those at risk of domestic violence to remain in their homes safely).  The Government did not provide any “weighty reasons” to justify the discrimination, so it was unlawful.  The Court also noted that in the context of domestic violence, “States have a duty to protect the physical and psychological integrity of an individual from threats by other persons, including in situations where an individual’s right to the enjoyment of his or home free of violent disturbance is at stake”.

Aspects of surveillance under RIPA found to be breach human rights

Big Brother Watch & Ors v UK (App Nos. 58170/13, 62322/14 and 24960/15)

This appeal challenged the legality of the surveillance of UK citizens and collection of their personal information and communications under the legal regime set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The ECtHR held that the bulk interception regime under RIPA 2000, s 8(4) violates ECHR, art 8 due to lack of oversight. Thus, the interception itself did not cause the violation; rather the lack of adherence to criteria set out in case law was the cause. The Court also held that the regime under RIPA 2000, Ch II for acquiring communications data from communication service providers violates art 8 as it is not in accordance with the law. Both these regimes were also held to violate art 10. However the judges found that the regime for sharing intelligence with foreign governments did not violate ECHR, arts 8 or 10.