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 the appellant 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 the appellant 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”.
Karon Monaghan QC was involved in this case.
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