"No DSS" – Court ruling declares housing benefit discrimination against tenants unlawful


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Anyone with experience of the private rented sector will be familiar with the phrase "No DSS", even though the DSS (Department for Social Security) itself is long gone.  A recent court ruling should mean the phrase goes the same way as its namesake.

In July, York County Court held that a blanket policy not to let to prospective tenants on the basis that they are claiming benefits is unlawful. According to the homelessness charity Shelter, this is the first time the courts have considered a case of this nature in the UK.

Many low-income tenants claim Universal Credit (UC) or its predecessor Housing Benefit, which UC is gradually replacing (together with several other benefits).  These cover some or all of the tenant's rent.  

This recent case concerned a 44 year old single mother of two (the Claimant), who was in part-time work and had references, but was also receiving housing benefit due to a disability.  However, her application to rent a property was rejected by a letting agent because it had a blanket policy not to accept tenants receiving housing benefit at all. The Claimant thought this was discriminatory and sued.

The District Judge held that rejecting a tenancy application simply on the grounds that a prospective tenant is receiving benefits is indirectly discriminatory and therefore unlawful.  The Claimant had two characteristics protected by the Equality Act: her sex and her disability.  The blanket "No DSS" policy was discriminatory because Shelter's research showed substantially more women (18.8% of private renters) claimed benefits than men (12.4%).  It was a similar picture when comparing disabled and non-disabled tenants.  If this could be shown to be a proportionate means of obtaining a legitimate aim, it could be lawful; this was not the case here.

While the case establishes that policies such as "no DSS" or "no benefits"' are unlawful, landlords should be wary they are not inadvertently discriminating in other ways.  For example, properties are often advertised as being suitable for "young professionals".  Could this be seen as "No DSS" by the back door?  Landlords will need to be sure they are not discriminating against anyone with a protected characteristic, or they could face a challenge. 

It is worth noting that although this is a county court judgment, and not binding on other courts, the court's reasoning is clear and the direction of travel seems clear. Each tenant should be treated as an individual.

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