Legal challenge over housing policy in Westminster invokes rights of women fleeing violence

By Adrian Zorzut, Local Democracy Reporter

The High Court has found Westminster City council’s housing policy indirectly discriminates against women and girls fleeing violence.

In April, Deputy High Court judge Simon Tinkler KC said aspects of the policy were unlawful and contradicted parts of the Equality Act 2010, but stopped short of quashing them.

Westminster City was taken to court after refusing a woman’s request for a “reciprocal transfer” into accommodation in the borough.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, requested the move after her landlord was unable to find her and her daughter suitable housing. This was despite the claimant making allegations about a neighbour.

Westminster City refused the request, citing the lack of available housing in the borough. Under a reciprocal transfer, Westminster could house the family and get access to equivalent accommodation in the family’s borough for one of its tenants, the Local Government Lawyer reported.

Handing down his ruling, Judge Tinkler said this had “an incredibly traumatic effect on the claimant and her child”.

He added: “It is now over two years since the search for replacement accommodation started. Both the claimant and her child are suffering serious medical issues as a consequence.”

The claimant and her child are reported to have lived in Westminster for a number of years when the child was at primary school and had a social network in the borough.

In a letter to the woman’s solicitor, Westminster City said it had refused the application “due to the demand from priority groups and that by agreeing a reciprocal we would, based on current projections, be rehousing [the Claimant] over 10 years out of turn.”

The claimant launched a legal challenge on the basis that policy treats people who are tenants in Westminster differently to people who live outside Westminster.

She asked the court to quash parts of the policy or declare them illegal. She also asked for the decision to be quashed and require the council to reconsider her application.

The claimant argued the policy indirectly discriminated against women because she claimed people who move boroughs to escape violence are more likely to be women than men.

Westminster City said it has very limited available housing and was unable to house everyone in Westminster who needs one. It said although the woman’s position was extremely unfortunate, it had properly exercised discretion in making the decision.

But Judge Tinkler said the policy was indirectly discriminatory contrary to s19 and s29 Equality Act 2010 and the council had not yet justified the discrimination.

He ordered the council to reconsider the application by April 30 and treat the claimant as if she were a tenant of Westminster. The council said it was working with the resident’s legal team to address their needs and find them suitable accommodation in the borough.

A Westminster City council spokesman said: “We are sorry about any distress that this person may have experienced. We care about the welfare of all our residents and regret that they have not received a good service from the council.

“We are working with the resident’s legal team to address their needs and find them suitable accommodation within the borough. As part of our efforts to address this, we are reviewing the council’s Allocation Policy to ensure that people living both within and outside the borough are treated fairly in line with the Equalities Act.”

Pictured top: Westminster City council offices in Victoria Street (Picture: Google Street View)

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