A reasonable offer of accommodation?

Posted: 24th May 2017

Flat blockLocal authorities have a legal duty to provide accommodation to homeless people in priority need – but the demand for public housing is so great that it cannot be satisfied. That impasse was clearly illustrated by a Supreme Court case concerning a traumatised refugee, Poshteh, who said that the flat to which she had been allocated reminded her of a prison cell.

Ms Poshteh had suffered imprisonment and torture in Iran and had been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK. After she made a homelessness application, a council accepted that she was in priority need and offered her a two-bedroom flat. She turned down the offer on the basis that features of the property, particularly its small windows, were reminiscent of prison and would exacerbate her post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks.

She presented letters from her therapist and her GP, but a housing officer took the view that there were insufficient medical grounds to justify her refusal. In the circumstances, the council decided that it had discharged the duty that it owed her under the Housing Act 1996. Her judicial review challenge to that decision was rejected by the High Court and subsequently by the Court of Appeal.

In dismissing her appeal against the latter ruling, the Supreme Court noted that the officer was not a lawyer and that it would be wrong to subject his decision to over-zealous linguistic analysis. His decision letter gave the impression of a hard-pressed official doing his best to cover all the issues. He clearly understood the importance of considering the woman’s mental state against the background of her imprisonment in Iran.

It might well have been unreasonable to offer her a very small and dark flat, without windows at a normal height looking out onto the world, but that was not a reasonable description of the flat concerned. The officer’s reasoning was clear and he had made no error of law in concluding that there were no sufficient grounds for her refusal to accept the property.