A mum and her son who was aged 11 have finally won their legal challenge against the bedroom tax, after taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Nearly three years after she lost at the Supreme Court, on 24 October 2019 (Thursday), the European Court ruled that the UK government is discriminating against women fleeing domestic violence, by applying the bedroom tax to women and children who need an extra room to take refuge in and be safe from a violent ex-partner who is likely to come to attack them.
The mum, known as Ms A, had twice faced eviction from her specially-adapted home because of the rent arrears caused by the bedroom tax. The court has ordered the government to pay her compensation for the distress caused.
In February to March 2016 at the Supreme Court, all the bedroom tax legal challenges on disability and domestic violence situations were heard together, seven cases all based on discrimination under human rights law. Mirror reporter Ros Wynne Jones described the scene in court:
“Perhaps it was when the barrister was explaining how the victim of domestic violence needed to get a fireproof letter box fitted. Or maybe hearing a sob stifled at the back of the courtroom as a family realised the Secretary of State’s QC was talking about them. Maybe it was seeing the clearly sick and exhausted disabled people who had struggled to get to the court. One man on oxygen, others in wheelchairs. But whatever the seven Justices presiding over the Supreme Court this week decide over the Bedroom Tax, there can be no doubt of the policy’s absolute cruelty.”
The then Work and Pensions Minister, Iain Duncan Smith, had spent a reputed £250,000 on legal fees to contest an earlier ruling in favour of the Rutherford family, who should never have had the bedroom tax applied to them.
We held a vigil and attended court every day, where we supported Charlotte and Jayson Carmichael, Susan and Paul Rutherford, and others in the case.
We had to wait nine long months, till November 2016, for the judgement. There was a mixed result where the Carmichaels and Rutherfords won, but most of the disabled claimants lost their case. And in relation to domestic violence, the judges decided that Ms A should not get the court’s protection. This was terrible. Lady Hale and one other judge dissented. We were quoted in the Guardian criticising the Supreme Court majority judges:
“The bedroom tax is an attack on low income people. It only affects people in social housing. Councils have been discriminatory in how they administer housing payments [which are supposed to help you if you are suffering hardship].
“We are worried that women and children are going to die as a result of the ruling on women fleeing domestic violence. There’s no safety for them in this judgment. [The judges] are picking and choosing in disability cases. Why should people have to lose their homes?”
The majority judges said that people can just apply for Discretionary Housing Payments. But DHPs are hard to get and you have to apply every few months. As they are discretionary there is no right to get them, whereas a legal ruling protects everyone. Many of the disabled and traumatised women we help today, are still struggling financially because of the bedroom tax in addition to care charges, etc.
Solicitors Rebekah Carrier and Ann Bevington represented Ms A at the European Court of Human Rights. Ann Bevington said:
“These changes to housing benefit have had a catastrophic impact upon vulnerable people across the country. Our client, whose life is at risk, has suffered great anxiety as a result of the bedroom tax and the uncertainty about this case. She lives in a property which has been specially adapted by the police, at great expense, to protect her and her child. The prospect of having to move another property (where she will not have any of these protections) or take in a lodger has loomed large for her during the six years it has taken this case to reach this stage. She is a vulnerable single parent who has been a victim of rape and assault. She is delighted that after such a long battle, the European Court of Human Rights has recognised the impact that the bedroom tax is having on her and others like her.”
“An investment has been made in keeping these vulnerable women safe and to move families in these circumstances out of their homes is a false economy as it will cost further money to provide security as the new property, and this may provide a reduced level of safety, putting them at risk. It is important to remember that on average two women every week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales – protecting abused women and their children is a matter of life and death, and we should always remember this.”
We now call on the Secretary of State to take swift action in response to today’s ruling, and to change the rules to exempt from the bedroom tax the small but extremely vulnerable class of women and children who need the safety of a sanctuary scheme whilst they try to rebuild their lives after surviving domestic violence.”