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by administrator @, Thursday, February 21, 2013, 15:59

Councils and housing associations can provide homeless families with two separate neighbouring units of accommodation to enable the family to live "together" in practical terms, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The court allowed an appeal from Camden London Borough Council after a woman claimed that she and her sister should be housed with their elderly father who had certain health issues.

The appeal concerned the interpretation of a provision of the Housing Act 1996 relating to the duties of local housing authorities to provide accommodation for those who are, or claim to be, homeless or threatened with homelessness.

Section 175 of the 1996 Act states, in essence, that a person is homeless if he has no accommodation "available for his occupation" in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. According to section 176, accommodation is to be regarded as available for a person's occupation only if it is "available for occupation by him together with any other person who normally resides with him as a member of his family, or any other person who might reasonably be expected to reside with him".

The phrase "available for his occupation" is relevant not only to establishing whether a person is homeless for the purposes of the 1996 Act, but also to identifying what duties a local authority owes to a person who is, or claims to be, homeless.

In 2004, Camden London Borough Council accepted that it owed a duty under the 1996 Act to provide accommodation to Ms Sharif, her father (a man in his 60s with certain health problems) and her sister (aged 14), on the basis that Ms Sharif was homeless. They were initially accommodated by the council in a hostel and later moved to a three-bedroom house owned by a private sector landlord.

In 2009, the council asked Ms Shariff, her father and her sister to move to two units on the same floor of a block of flats in North London. Each unit comprised a single bed-sitting room with cooking facilities, plus a bathroom. The two units were separated by only a few yards. It was envisaged by the council that Ms Sharif and her sister would share one unit, and the other unit (suitable only for one person) would be used by her father.

Ms Sharif refused the offer, saying that the accommodation was not "suitable" because her father's medical condition required them to live in the same unit of accommodation. Ms Sharif requested a review of the council's decision, but the council's reviewing officer concluded that the accommodation offered was "suitable".

Ms Sharif appealed to the London Central County Court on a number of grounds, including the suggestion that the accommodation was not "suitable" and that section 176 of the 1996 Act precluded the Council from offering Ms Sharif and her family two separate units of accommodation. The County Court dismissed the appeal. There was no further appeal on the issue of the suitability of the accommodation. However, the Court of Appeal reversed the County Court's decision on the basis that the words "together with" in section 176 require a homeless family to be housed in the same unit of accommodation. The council appealed to the Supreme Court.

The majority concluded that, whilst one of the main purposes of the 1996 Act is to ensure that members of a homeless family are not split up by local housing authorities, section 176 does not prevent a local housing authority offering a homeless family two separate units of accommodation if they are so located that they enable the family to live "together" in practical terms.

In his judgement, Lord Carnwath said: "This is a short point which does not permit of much elaboration. Etherton LJ relied on what he considered to be the ordinary meaning of the statutory language. In my respectful view, the ordinary meaning does not support that interpretation. The word 'accommodation' in itself is neutral. It is not in its ordinary sense to be equated with 'unit of accommodation'.

"It is no abuse of language to speak of a family being 'accommodated' in two adjoining flats. The limitation, if any, must therefore be found in the words 'available for occupation. together with' the other members of his family. The statutory test will be satisfied by a single unit of accommodation in which a family can live together.

"But it may also be satisfied by two units of accommodation if they are so located that they enable the family to live 'together' in practical terms. In the end, as Mr Arden submits, this comes down to an issue of fact, or of factual judgment, for the authority. Short of irrationality it is unlikely to raise any issue of law for the court."

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