A Supreme Court decision has established that Croydon Council could be within its right to refuse to house a homeless resident if they have proven housing them would lead to the detriment of others in the borough.

The contentious legal battle that underscores the ongoing struggles with homelessness in the heart of London concerns Croydon’s statutory duty towards a homeless individual under the Housing Act 1996. 

According to experts, the result of this case could have wide-reaching implications for the borough and its relationship with its residents.  The outcome also offers cash-strapped councils a potential avenue to avoid settling costly housing bills if they provide adequate justification.

The focus of the dispute centres around a disabled homeless woman and her family and the question of whether Croydon Council has a legal obligation to house them, irrespective of its financial constraints. Both financial stability and homelessness reduction have been a focal point of the presiding Conservative-led council following the turbulence of recent years.

While the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the local authority on whether it demonstrated it did everything within its power to house the individual, legal experts hold the decision as a positive for councils.

Victoria Searle, associate at Browne Jacobson, the firm which advised the council on the appeal said: “The court ruled in principle that councils can’t be compelled by a mandatory order to do the impossible.”

She added: “This judgment will bring sighs of relief from many local authorities. The Supreme Court has recognised that the pressures local authorities face (and the difficulties they face in balancing the increasing demands on their housing services with serious budgetary pressures) are significant factors in the court’s exercise of its remedial relief.”

Searle spoke of the importance of a council meeting its statutory requirements but stressed it should not be forced to do so if it was to the detriment of the council’s other beneficiaries. 

Searle commented: “While local authorities will, rightly, be required to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to perform their duty, the courts should not grant relief in cases where this would cause unfairness to others who are dependent upon that authority for housing or cause significant disruption to an authority’s management of its resources to meet all the functions imposed on it by Parliament.”

Following the dismissal of the appeal, Croydon must now take the case back to the High Court for further consideration with fresh evidence. There it must demonstrate that providing housing to Imam would take funding away from other areas of their budget and ultimately detriment Croydon residents.

This decision bookends a case that dates back to 2014, when Ms Imam, the respondent applied for assistance as a homeless person to Croydon Council. Ms Imam is a full-time wheelchair user and mother of three children aged between 12-17.

Croydon has been providing Ms Imam with temporary housing in a three-bedroom property with stairs since September 2014. Given her disability, Croydon acknowledges that the property is not an appropriate place to live.

Section 193(2) of Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 stipulates that local housing authorities must assist those who are not intentionally homeless. 

Part 6 of the act also stipulates the allocation of housing accommodation on a secure, non-temporary basis. Ms Imam is on the waiting list for re-housing in a wheelchair-adapted property under Part 6.

Due to the amount of time she spent on the waiting list, Ms Imam brought a claim for judicial review of Croydon’s treatment of her. She sought an order to require the local authority to secure suitable accommodation for her and her family. She also requested damages under the Equality Act and a reassessment of her priority status.

After the high court ruled the local authority’s lack of financial or other resources should not be taken into consideration, Croydon appealed and took the case to the Supreme Court, the highest civil court in the land. 

In the following Supreme Court case, the onus was on the authority to explain to the court why a mandatory order to find suitable housing should not be made.  However, since this appeal was dismissed both Croydon and Ms Imam must return to the High Court.

In his judgment, Supreme Court judge Lord Sales instructed the parties as to what was to happen next. He said: “LBC (Croydon) should submit proposals to the court on how to proceed in respect of any competition for suitable properties between individuals, including Ms Imam, who are owed a duty under section 193(2).”

Croydon Council was approached for comment but failed to respond in time for publication.