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Challenging The Suitability of Unfurnished Accommodation Offered To Homeless Persons

The question here is whether offers of unfurnished accommodation by local authorities to persons applying for accommodation under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (“the Act”) can be challenged as being unsuitable?

The challenge would be either by way of Judicial Review proceedings in the case of accommodation provided under Section 188 or review under Section 202 and then an appeal to the County Court under Section 204 of the Act once a duty has been accepted under Section 193 of the Act.

Common sense says that unfurnished accommodation cannot be suitable as people need furniture such as beds and chairs and also need utilities such as cookers and fridges to enable them to live a normal life in accommodation which is provided for them.

This does seem to seem to be accepted by some councils For example the section of the London Borough of Islington's web site dealing with temporary accommodation states in clear terms - All temporary accommodation is fully furnished. A similar statement can be found on the web site of Westminster City Council

However, common sense cannot be taken for granted in the context of homelessness law and it does appear that some councils are treating unfurnished accommodation as being suitable.

The duty which the Act places on local authorities is to provide suitable accommodation. Section 206 states that accommodation must be suitable but this does not mention furniture or define what suitable means.   This leaves it open to authorities to argue they only have to provide a house or a flat but do not have to provide any furniture or utilities.

A fairly recent case in which the Claimant argued that unfurnished accommodation was unsuitable was the Judicial Review case R (Escott) v Chichester DC 2020 . This case is not very helpful for providing a rule of general application to all cases because it concerned a very specific and unusual set of facts regarding the provision of unfurnished Section 188 accommodation. In particular:-

* It concerned a single man
* He had a history of alcohol and drug abuse
* The case was brought during the coronavirus outbreak
* The council had provided some limited furniture

All of these factors meant that the Judge was less sympathetic towards him than he might have been if the case involved a family with young children and his Judicial Review claim was dismissed. See the Nearly Legal Post -Unfurnished temporary accommodation – is it suitable? for further consideration of this case.

The case revealed the lack of cases or rules to guide the courts. Mr Justice Martin Spencer stated at paragraph 42 of his judgment:

“….it is, perhaps, instructive that, although this is an area of law in which there has been significant litigation over the years, there is not one authority that I have been able to find that sets out that, in order to comply with its duty to provide suitable accommodation, a local authority must provide furnished accommodation; a search on the usual search engines for furnished and unfurnished accommodation yielded no results.”

The starting point must therefore be that there is no express requirement for a council to provide furnished accommodation and/or that accommodation does not have to be furnished to be suitable or at least there is no authority that can be cited for arguing this.

Statute
Sections 188 and 193 only refer to accommodation with Section 206 stating that it must be suitable. There is no reference to an obligation to furnished accommodation.

The Code of Guidance
This makes no reference to the need for accommodation to be furnished - see  Chapter 17  Suitability of Accommodation of the Code of Guidance   here

Case Law
As reported by Mr Justice Martin Spencer in Escott there are no other reported cases dealing with this issue of whether accommodation should be furnished.

The Way Forward

The lack of legal authority for accommodation to be furnished does not amount to authority that accommodation does not have to be furnished in some cases. It may just demonstrate that the right case has not come along for a Court to find that unfurnished accommodation will sometimes be unsuitable. It may also suggest that it has not been necessary for the authors of the Code of Guidance or the Courts to consider the issue of unfurnished accommodation very much because local authorities are usually offering furnished accommodation.

The case of Escott is not authority for the argument that temporary accommodation does not have to be furnished. It is only really authority for the argument that the council's position in that particular case could not be challenged. It should also be noted that the council had actually provided Mr Escott with some limited furnishings so it was not a case of him challenging the suitability of a completely empty flat.

The best way forward is to consider how a Judge, taking the same approach as was taken in Escott might be asked to find unfurnished  accommodation unsuitable for a family with children or a person with medical needs.

In Escott, the Claimant referred the Court to the test for determining the suitability of accommodation set out in the earlier case of Codona v. Mid-Bedfordshire District Council [2004] EWCA Civ 925, where at para.46, Lord Justice Auld said, as follows:

"… I draw three main criteria for 'suitability' of an offer by a local housing authority of accommodation to homeless or vulnerable people like gypsies to whom it owes a statutory duty to secure the availability of accommodation:

1) suitability to a Wednesbury minimum level of suitability in the nature, location and standard of condition of the accommodation having regard to the circumstances of the applicant and his or her resident family, including the duration of their likely occupation of it;

2) the absolute nature of the duty which, though coupled with an elastic concept of suitability taking account of financial constraints and limited availability of accommodation, is not so elastic as to permit an offer below the Wednesbury minimum standard ... and

3) special consideration, in the regulatory provision for and in decision-making in individual cases, for the housing needs of particularly vulnerable applicants such as traditional gypsies with a view, so far as practicable and when considered with all the other circumstances, to facilitating their traditional way of life."

I should mention here that the term Wednesbury used here or Wednesbury Unreasonableness is legal shorthand for something so unreasonable that no reasonable person could consider it to be reasonable. The term comes from the case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation [1948]. More about that another time.

In Emscott the Claimant referred to the reference at the first numbered paragraph to the “standard of condition of the accommodation having regard to the circumstances of the applicant and his or her resident family” as suggesting that unfurnished accommodation could amount to a standard of condition of the accommodation which made it unsuitable.  The Judge did not accept that the accommodation offered to the claimant could be described in this way but the argument might work in other cases because:-

1. It is hard to see accommodation where children or a person with medical needs would have to sleep on the floor due to the lack of beds could be treated as meeting an acceptable standard of condition

2. The duty of the local authority to consider the welling being of children under the Children Act 2004 is unlikely to be discharged there children have to sleep on the floor along with the duty to children who are “in need” under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989

3. The duty of a local authority under the Public Sector Equality Duty arising under Section 149 of Equality Act 2010 may not be discharged where a disabled person is placed in unfurnished accommodation.

Where unfurnished accommodation is offered to a family which includes children or to a person with a medical condition it should be possible to bring a challenge. This could be on the basis that either the child or the person with the medical condition would suffer discomfort as as a result for instance of sleeping on the floor such that the accommodation was unsuitable and the offer amounted to a failure to discharge the statutory duties owed to them under the Children Acts 1989 and 2004 or the Equality Act 2010. Depending on the severity of an applicant's medical condition the provision of furniture might be requested by way of support under the Care Act 2014.

I have prepared some basic text for including in Judicial Review Pre Action Protocol Letter challenging an offer of unfurnished temporary accommodation under Section 188 of the Act. The full text of the protocol can be found here but for the purposes of the post I will just say that it requires Claimants to have given proposed Defendants a detailed warning before issuing proceedings.

The same text could be when making representations in support of a review under Section 202 of the Act of unfurnished accommodation pursuant to Section 193 of the Act. I encourage anyone dealing with offers of unfurnished accommodation to try and use these and to leave a comment to let me know the outcome.

Text for a Pre Action Protocol Letter For a Family with a Child/Children Who Have Been Offered Unfurnished Accommodation

Text For A Pre Action Protocol Letter For An Applicant With A Medical Condition Who Has Been Offered Unfurnished Accommodation

The documents are only rough drafts as a starting point. I would welcome any suggestions that anyone has so that they can be improved and will hopefully be able to incorporate these into improved amendments. Please leave any comments either as comments on the above Google Documents themselves, or as comments on this post or my emailing me at wflack63@gmail.com

For more information about Judicial Review see the Administrative Court's Guide to Judicial Review and for more information about the Judicial Review pre action protocol and what needs to go in a pre action letter see the Ministry of Justice Web site  on Pre-Action Protocol for Judicial Review