New guidance for vulnerable persons handed down

The Court of Appeal today handed down important guidance on when a person is “vulnerable” for the purposes of determining whether are in priority need under s. 189(1)(c) of Part VII of the Housing Act 1996. The decision was given in the linked appeals of Panayiotou v LB Waltham Forest and Smith v LB Haringey [2017] EWCA Civ 1624


In Panayiotou Martin Westgate QC acted for the appellant with Tessa Buchanan of Garden Court Chambers.  They were instructed by Simon Mullings of Edwards Duthie


The full housing duty under Part VII is only owed to those in priority need so, as the Court explained it is “critical” to know whether somebody falls within this definition. In 2015/16 57,750 households in England were accepted as being homeless and in priority need.


In Hotak v Southwark LBC [2015] UKSC 30, [2016] AC 811 Lord Neuberger held that the statutory term connotes “significantly more vulnerable than ordinarily vulnerable”. Since then reviewing officers and county court judges have taken different approaches to “significant” for these purposes. Many decision makers took it to mean that even if an applicant might suffer more harm than would an ordinary person they were only “vulnerable” if the harm reached a particular level of severity.


The Court of Appeal has decided that this approach is wrong. At paragraph 64 Lewison LJ explains that “significant” does not introduce a quantitative threshold but is used in a qualitative sense. “In other words the question to be asked is whether, when compared to an ordinary person if made homeless, the applicant, in consequence of a characteristic within section 189 (1) (c), would suffer or be at risk of suffering harm or detriment which the ordinary person would not suffer or be at risk of suffering such that the harm or detriment would make a noticeable difference to his ability to deal with the consequences of homelessness” [64]


The effect is that reviewing officers ought simply to ask whether there is a noticeable difference between the applicant and an ordinary person in these circumstances and not whether that difference is so great in degree or level to count as significant.


On the facts the court held that the reviewing officer had erred in Smith (appeal allowed) but not in Panayiotou (appeal dismissed)


The full judgement can be found here

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