06 January, 2009
A woman who was evicted from a Manchester refuge and subsequently refused council housing has been given leave to appeal to the House of Lords on the decision reached by the Court of Appeal in Moran v Manchester City Council and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  H.L.R. 39. This verdict to be given next year could have a significant consequence on the future and viability of refuges in the UK.
Sharon Moran and her partner were joint tenants of local authority accommodation. In September 2006, she left the property because of domestic violence and went with her two children to a women's refuge. She signed a licence agreement which stated "although the refuge is temporary accommodation (between three to six months) it can be your home for as long as you need it while you decide what to do". This agreement also gave the refuge the right to evict Moran if she was violent or abusive to staff. In October, as a result of such behaviour, the refuge did terminate the agreement and asked Moran to leave the premises. She applied to the local authority as being homeless, but they decided that she made herself intentionally homeless by leaving the refuge and had provided her with this temporary accommodation out of its duty to her children. Moran requested a review of the decision, on the ground that the refuge could not constitute 'accommodation' as defined in the Housing Act 1996 and as a consequence, she could not have become intentionally homeless from it. The Council appealed to the Court of Appeal following the County Court finding in Moran's favour.
The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal by the Council and held that a refuge can be classified as accommodation under the Housing Act 1996. They stated that it may be reasonable for the purposes of the Act for a woman to continue to occupy accommodation in a refuge and that the analogy drawn between refuges and direct access hostels or night shelters in the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities (2006) was misleading. Instead, refuges provided housing for longer periods of time. Therefore, the local authority could have only reasonably concluded that it would have been reasonable for Moran to remain in occupation at the refuge.
The Court gave a series of factors that should be considered in determining whether a refuge can constitute accommodation include its size and quality, the terms of the agreement, her ability to afford it, the appropriateness of its location for her and her children, the facilities available for her children's needs, the length of time which they have occupied it for, the state of their physical and emotional health whilst in occupation and the time which they would expect to continue occupying it.
In light of these factors, the Council, the Court held, could not have reached any other verdict than the one reached in the present instance.
Following the Court of Appeal's decision in April 2008, Moran has been granted leave to take her legal test case to the House of Lords for a decision next year. One of the key questions that will have to be addressed is whether a place at a refuge satisfies the definition of 'accommodation' in the 1996 Housing Act. Under the legislation, people are not to be considered as homeless if it would be reasonable for them to continue living in accommodation. Moran argued that it was unfair for the Council to have expected her to have remained in the refuge and that she should not be considered as intentionally homeless.
The housing sector now awaits the outcome of the House of Lords on these points in both a legal and practical sense.
Should the law lords decide that a place in a refuge does amount to accommodation, the effect that this could have upon such organisations is substantial. With most being charity-based bodies, if they were to find that they may become unable to remove individuals as easily as at present, some may become reluctant to continue operating in such a way. The outcome may be that a number may give assistance to fewer tenants, or even none. Agreements between the refuges and the women could become more complex and lengthy and the cost, in both financial terms and in time, to the refuge when seeking to evict people may add a further burden to an already stretched segment of housing providers.
Whether the verdict of the law lords will have a detrimental impact upon those seeking refuge, the organisations and the local authorities remains to be seen. However, a decision stating that a room in a refuge is reasonable accommodation may bring more problems than solutions and more questions than answers to the sector as a whole.