High Court Rules that applying the reduced benefit cap to lone parents with children under two is unlawful

Today, the High Court has ruled that the application of the benefit cap to lone parents with children under two is unlawful because of its discriminatory impact upon both the children and their parents. The judicial review challenge, brought by four lone parent families, concerned the reduced benefit cap introduced by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. The revised benefit cap drastically reduced housing benefits, leaving lone parent families across the country unable to afford basic life necessities to care for their children. Mr Justice Collins has ruled that the application of the revised benefit cap to lone parents with children under two amounts to unlawful discrimination and that “real damage” is being caused to the Claimants and families like theirs across the country. Upon considering the impact of the benefit cap, Mr Justice Collins concluded that “real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

The challenge was brought by four lone parent families for whom the reduced benefit cap has, or will have, severe effects. They are all lone parents with children under the age of two, and their dependent children (one of the Claimants was at the time of the hearing a lone parent who was heavily pregnant, and she now has a newborn baby). Two of the families had become homeless because of domestic violence.  As a result of their caring responsibilities and the cost of childcare, they were unable to work the required minimum 16 hours per week to escape the cap. As a result, their benefits were cut which left each of the Claimants with a stark choice between rent and food and other essential items and unable to provide basic necessities for their children.

The Secretary of State recognises that lone parents of very young children under two should not be expected to work. Free childcare hours for low income families start only when children reach the age of two. However, no exemption to the benefit cap was made for this group.  The Claimants argued that the Secretary of State’s failure to exempt them from the benefit cap has a profound impact upon them and their children, which is discriminatory and unlawful, in breach of Article 14 ECHR.  Doughty Street’s Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC is on the Claimants’ legal team, along with Ian Wise QC and Michael Armitage, Monckton Chambers.  They are instructed by Rebekah Carrier, Hopkin Murray Beskine.  Jennifer Robinson has been providing support and assistance to the legal team.

The judicial review challenge was supported by expert homelessness charity, Shelter, represented by Doughty Street’s Martin Westgate QC, along with Shu Shin Lu and Connor Johnson, Garden Court Chambers.  They are instructed by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Collins emphasised the damaging impact of the benefit cap in terms of child poverty (at [29]):

“Those in need of welfare benefits fall within the poorest families with children. It seems that some 3.7 million children live in poverty and, as must be obvious, the cap cannot but exacerbate this. The need for alternative benefits to make up shortfalls is hardly conducive to the desire to incentivise work and so not provide benefits. There is powerful evidence that very young children are particularly sensitive to environmental influences. Poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five.”

In reaching his conclusion, Mr Justice Collins found (at [42]):

“…the cap is capable of real damage to such as the claimants. They are not workshy but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement. Most lone parents with children under two are not the sort of households the cap was intended to cover... Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

A full High Court judgement is available here

Hopkin Murray Beskine’s press release is available here 

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