Priority need for housing and the vulnerable


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The Court of Appeal has handed down guidance on when a person is vulnerable and therefore in priority need of assistance in the case of Panayiotou v Waltham Forest LBC / Smith v Haringey LBC [2017] EWCA 1624, under the Housing Act 1996.

Section 189(1)(c) of the Housing Act 1996 (the Act) states that a person who is "vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or handicap or physical disability or other special reason" has a priority need for housing. 

The Appellants, Mr Panayioutou (P) and Mr Smith (S), appealed decisions by their respective local authorities that they were not in priority need of accommodation following their homeless applications as vulnerable persons. P suffered from depression and anxiety and S suffered from mental health problems and chronic leg pain. The reviewing officers had applied the test set out by Hotak v Southwalk LBC [2015] UKSC 30, [2016] A.C. 2011, namely that vulnerable meant "significantly more vulnerable than ordinary vulnerable" as a result of being homeless. 

Following unsuccessful reviews they both appealed to the County Court alleging that too high a threshold had been applied when considering the question of vulnerability. Both appeals were dismissed and both appealed to the Court of Appeal for it to determine the meaning of "significantly" and to decide whether the reviewing officers had applied the correct test.

The Court of Appeal held that in relation to the meaning of "significantly" it was not helpful to draw a comparison with the definition of "disability" in the Equality Act 2010.

The Court of Appeal held that in defining "significantly" the question should be asked as to whether, compared to an ordinary person if made homeless, the applicant would suffer, or be at risk of suffering, harm or detriment which an ordinary person would not suffer or be at risk of suffering, such that the harm or detriment would make a noticeable difference to his ability to deal with the consequences of homelessness.

In P's case, the reviewing officer had concluded that P would not be at more risk of harm without accommodation than an ordinary person would be. As the officer had applied the correct test P's appeal was dismissed.

In S's case, the Court held that the reviewing officer “must have interpreted "significantly" as importing a quantitative threshold”. The Court held that it is a qualitative test, requiring consideration of the applicant’s particular characteristic and deciding whether that characteristic would have a noticeable difference in the applicant’s housing context. 

For those dealing with homeless applications, the main point to take from this decision is that when considering vulnerability, the question to ask is would the applicant’s relevant characteristic make a noticeable difference to their ability to deal with the consequences of homelessness?

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