In this post Alice Richardson considers the long-awaited Supreme Court “bedroom tax” decision and what it means for affected housing benefit claimants and local authorities.
On 9th November 2016 the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the joined appeals of R (Carmichael and Rourke) (formerly known as MA and others) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, R (Daly and others) (formerly known as MA and others) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, R (A) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and R (Rutherford and another) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  UKSC 58.
Lord Toulson (with whom Lords Neuberger, Mance, Sumption and Hughes agreed) delivered the decision, which was unanimous in respect of some of the appeals, but was only a majority decision (Lady Hale and Lord Carnwarth dissenting) in others.
The bedroom tax was imposed by Regulation B13 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/213) (“Reg B13”) from 1 April 2013, by way of amendment to the 2006 Regulations by the Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2012 (SI 2012/3040).
The appeals concerned the impact of the bedroom tax on those with disabilities and on women living in “sanctuary scheme” accommodation. The claimants challenged the validity of Reg B13 and contended that there has been a violation of their human rights under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), taken with Article 8 and/or Article 1 of the First Protocol (“A1P1”) and in A’s case that there has been a breach of the Public Sector Equality Duty (“PSED”) under the Equality Act 2010.
Reg B13 had previously been amended due to the decision of the Court of Appeal in Burnip v Birmingham City Council and other appeals EWCA Civ 629. In Burnip and a second case the claimants were adults with disabilities who required the presence of a carer throughout the night. A third case (Gorry) concerned a family with two children of the same sex who suffered from severe disabilities making it inappropriate for them to share a bedroom. The court held that in each case there had been discrimination under article 14, because Reg B13 had a disparate adverse impact on persons with disabilities, and that the discrimination had not been justified. The court recognised that the Discretionary Housing Payment (“DHP”) scheme had a valuable role to play but it did not consider that they provided an adequate response to the problem in those cases. In broad terms, by the time of the Supreme Court hearing, Reg B13 had been amended to meet these cases.
The Decisions Below
In MA the Court of Appeal accepted that Reg B13 had a discriminatory effect on some people with disabilities, but it held that the discrimination was justified, primarily because the Secretary of State was entitled to take the view that it was not practicable to exempt an imprecise class of persons to whom the bedroom criteria would not apply because they needed extra bedroom space by reason of disability. The DHP scheme had the benefit of flexibility and was also appropriate because the nature of a person’s disability and disability-related needs may change over time. The court rejected the argument that the case of Mrs Carmichael, who needed to sleep in a separate room from her husband on account of her disability, was materially indistinguishable from the Gorry situation of children who were unable to sleep in the same room. The court held that the Secretary of State was entitled to provide greater protection for a child than an adult because the best interests of a child are a primary consideration.
In the proceedings relating to A and Rutherford the Court of Appeal held that the situation of the Rutherford family, who included a child with disabilities requiring an overnight carer on certain days of the week, was indistinguishable from that of an adult with disabilities requiring an overnight carer, to which the decision in Burnip applied. The court held that the reasoning in Burnip applied also in the case of A, a female victim of domestic violence living in accommodation adapted under a sanctuary scheme.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court dismissed an argument from the MA appellants that ‘weighty reasons’ were required in disability discrimination cases and held that the appropriate test was whether the relevant parts of Reg B13 were ‘manifestly without reasonable foundation’ (see Stec v United Kingdom (2006) 43 EHRR 1017 and Humphreys v Revenue and Customs Comrs  1 WLR 1545).
The Court then went on to consider whether the test had been misapplied.
Firstly, the Court considered Carmichael and Rutherford to be “counterparts” to Gorry and Burnip respectively, and the amendments introduced to meet those decisions did not apply in Carmichael or Rutherford.
The Supreme Court considered that there was no reasonable justification for the differences. Whilst there may be some respects in which differential treatment of children and adults regarding the occupation of bedrooms may have a sensible explanation, there was no sensible reason for distinguishing between adult partners who cannot share a bedroom because of disability and children who cannot do so because of disability. The same applied also to distinguishing between adults and children in need of an overnight carer.
The Court dismissed the remaining MA cases, however, holding in each that it was not unreasonable for those cases to be considered on an individual basis under the DHP scheme.
In A’s case the majority held that there was no valid claim for sex discrimination and the Secretary of State’s appeal was allowed. A’s case for staying where she was, strong as that case appeared to be, had nothing to do with the size of the property.
Lady Hale & Lord Carnwarth, dissented, finding that Reg 13B operated so as to discriminate against women such as A who were victims of gender-based violence. If the justification for the discrimination (DHP) was not good enough to justify disability discrimination against Rutherford and Carmichael then it was not good enough to justify sex discrimination against A. Similarly, whilst the majority held that there had been no breach of the PSED the minority held that the public sector equality duty requires public authorities at least to consider the impact of their decisions and actions on the victims of gender-based violence. In this case they had failed to do so and accordingly there had been a breach of the PSED.
As Lady Hale points out in her judgment, it is perhaps unfortunate that A’s case was dealt with alongside the disability discrimination cases due to the different issues raised. A has announced plans to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights which will, of course, take some time.
Nevertheless, the decision relating to the Carmichael’s and the Rutherford’s is to be welcomed and brings an end to the seemingly unjustified distinction between the claimants in Burnip and MA.
Reg13 will now need to be amended to provide for exemptions for households with disabled people with a clear medical need an extra bedroom. One would hope that this will be done relatively quickly (unlike the post-Burnip amendment).
In the meantime, the day the judgement was handed down the Department of Work and Pensions issued an Urgent Bulletin to Local Authorities (HB U3/2016) which states:
“No immediate action needs to be taken by local authorities (LAs) following this judgment. The Court did not strike down the legislation underpinning the size criteria. As such LAs must continue to apply the rules when determining Housing Benefit claims as they did before today’s judgment and the judgment does not require any LA to re-assess the HB of existing claimants. LAs should continue to award DHPs to claimants who they consider require additional financial support.
The Department is considering the Court’s judgment and will take steps to ensure it complies with its terms in due course. The Department will notify LAs once a decision has been taken.”
By s.6(1) Human Rights Act 1998 it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is in compatible with a convention right. Refusing to re-assess claimants and/or refusing to award the full housing benefit entitlement to claimants with a clear medical need for an extra bedroom may well infringe that provision.
According to the Nearly Legal Blog the Child Poverty Action Group are of the view that claimants should seek a revision/supersession of their decision on the basis of “error of law” and then appeal to the First Tier Tribunal if refused.
However, it is unclear how the Tribunal would be able to resolve the situation. Reg13 cannot be read in a convention complaint way pursuant to s.3 HRA 1998 and the Supreme Court has already declared the legislation to be incompatible.
Claimants may well be better off continuing to claim DHP pending the amendments.