Last month, the European Court of Human Rights found that the ‘bedroom tax’ discriminated against women who are survivors of domestic violence.

Facts of the Case

A and her son’s live in a three bedroom house, with a panic room. This housing is provided under the UK's Sanctuary Scheme, which adapts social housing specifically for survivors of domestic violence, enabling them to live safely in their own homes. A is a survivor of violent sexual crime, harassment, and stalking by a former partner.

A receives Housing Benefit to rent her home. Following the change in legislation in 2012 (the so-called “Bedroom tax”), the applicant’s Housing Benefit was reduced by 14%, as she was considered to have one more bedroom than that to which she is entitled (as the house has 3 bedrooms for 2 people). Because of the reduction, the applicant’s Housing Benefit no longer meets the cost of her rent. She claimed that the rules unlawfully discriminate against survivors of domestic violence.

 

Which rights are involved?

A claimed that she had been discriminated against on the basis of “her gender as the victim of gender based violence” (Article 14) in conjunction with her right to the peaceful enjoyment of her possessions (Article 1; Protocol 1).

 

What did the court decide?

The Court found that ruled that the aim of the bedroom tax (to encourage people to leave their homes with “extra” bedrooms for smaller ones) was in conflict with the aim of sanctuary schemes, which was to enable those at risk of domestic violence to remain in their homes safely.

The impact of treating A, or other people in Sanctuary Schemes, in the same way as others subject to the new housing benefit rules without any “weighty reasons” to justify the discrimination, was a disproportionate interference with their right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions.

The Court also noted that in the context of domestic violence, States also have a duty to protect people from threats from others, including in situations where an individual’s right to the enjoyment of his or her home free of violent disturbance was at stake.

 

Outside the Court Room

Human rights are not just a matter for the Courts. In this example, Yolande used human rights to challenge a social services decision, enabling her to continue rebuilding her life.

Yolande and her children were fleeing domestic violence, and her husband’s attempts to track them down as they moved from town to town across the UK. Time and again the family would be uprooted, having to move on every time he discovered their whereabouts.

Eventually, they arrived in London, and were referred to social services in their borough. However, what could have been the family’s first reprieve after months of uncertainty and fear turned into another ordeal in itself. Social workers told Yolande that the constant moving of her children meant she was an unfit parent and that she had made the family intentionally homeless. They said that they had no choice but to place her children in foster care.

Yolande sought independent advice from a charity working with women who have experienced domestic violence, who had been supported through BIHR training on the Human Rights Act. A support worker helped Yolande to challenge social services’ decision. Yolande said she thought the decision had failed to respect her own right to respect for family life (Article 8), and the right to family life of her children.

Looking at the situation from a human rights perspective helped change the conversation. Social services reconsidered the issue, taking the family’s human rights into account, and worked with Yolande and her children to find a suitable solution. They all agreed that the family would remain together, and that social services would help cover some of the essential costs of securing private rented accommodation.

For Yolande and her children, being supported to find a new home was an essential step in rebuilding a new life in safety after a distressing and turbulent time.

 

Our New Project with women who are rebuilding their lives after domestic violence

As we can see from Yolande’s story, too few public services (and their frontline staff) know what their legal duties are to meet people's human rights, including to the right to choice, to be heard, to well-being, participation in the community, to be able to enjoy their home, to not be discriminated against. However, these rights are all vital to enable women to rebuild their lives following domestic abuse.

This month we will be kicking off the development of our new tool which will support women to know their human rights and the duties of public services to respect and protect these, not only to keep them safe (which is vital) but to also help rebuild their lives.

The views and needs of women will be central to this project. We'll map and test directly with women and VAWG groups. Ensuring that the tool will provide women with all the information they need, in their pockets, for meetings with housing staff, education, social workers, police and others, enabling to have the power of legal language in what are often difficult interactions.