Mr and Mrs Puhlhofer were living with their two young children temporarily in bed and breakfast accommodation in a guest house. They had one single bedroom with no means of washing clothes or cooking. They applied to the local authority for accommodation as homeless persons because the room was inadequate for their needs. The council decided that they were not homeless or threatened with homelessness within the meaning of the Housing (HP) Act 1977, s.1.
The Court of Appeal
In the Court of Appeal Ackner LJ (supporting the judgment of Hodgson J) held that the word “accommodation”:
…cannot mean simply premises in which the applicant and his family are presently lodging. In my judgment the accommodation must be such that it is reasonable for the applicant and his family to continue to occupy it, having regard to the general circumstances prevailing in relation to housing in the area of the housing authority to whom he has applied (at p 493).
The House Of Lords
The House of Lords upheld the local authority’s decision. In deciding whether or not an applicant was homeless, the local authority did not have to consider whether any existing accommodation was appropriate or reasonable.
The consequence of the decision in Puhlhofer was that a person accommodated in conditions so intolerable that it would not be reasonable for him to continue to occupy that accommodation was not homeless although, if he actually left, he would not thereby become intentionally homeless.
This produced the inconvenient result that persons living in such conditions had to put themselves on the street before they could activate the local authority’s duty to provide them with accommodation
It is also significant that Lord Brightman expressed concern at the use of Judicial Review as a means of challenging decisions by local authorities in this area saying:
"My Lords, I am troubled at the prolific use of judicial
review for the purpose of challenging the performance by local
authorities of their functions under the Act. Parliament intended
the local authority to be the judge of fact."
He took the view that challenges should only be considered by the Courts in cases of abuse of power or irrationality which he defined as where a decision was verging on an absurdity.
Corrrection of the House of Lords Error via the Housing and Planning Act 1986
During the passage of the Housing and Planning Act 1986, Baroness David backed by Shelter sought tenaciously to tackle the injustice that resulted from the decision in Puhlhofer. The successful amendment enlarged the definition of homelessness to include the requirement that accommodation must be reasonable to continue to occupy. Section 14(2) of the Act amended the Homelessness Act 1977 so as to add the requirement that the accommodation available to a person had to be "suitable" for them.
Significantly the predecessor provisions to ss 206 and 210 of the Housing Act 1996 – (discharge of functions by local authorities and suitability of accommodation with reference to fitness standards) were also brought in under the Puhlhofer amendment.
7 July 2015 Doughty Street Chambers Seminar Material The End of Puhlhofer? copy