Bedroom tax: under what circumstances is a spare room justifiable?
Case name: R (Daly and others) (formerly known as MA and others) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
Housing benefit regulations reduce the amount of benefit available to people who have a spare bedroom. Seven people who had lost some of their benefit challenged the Department for Work and Pensions in the Supreme Court.
Under housing benefit changes made in 2012, people have their benefit reduced if they have more bedrooms than seemed to be required.
A group of seven people who had lost some of their housing benefit because of the so-called bedroom tax challenged it in the Supreme Court.
They argued that it broke equality and human rights laws. Each of them had apparently valid reasons for needing an additional bedroom, either because they have disabilities, live with people with disabilities, or need overnight carers. In one case a woman, who was the victim of domestic violence, had a police-installed ‘safe room’ to provide a sanctuary if her former partner came to the house.
The claimants had all unsuccessfully brought earlier legal action, leading to this collective appeal. The Department for Work and Pensions had successfully argued that although they accepted the policy was discriminatory, it was justified.
Why we were involved
We have long been concerned that the ‘bedroom tax’ is discriminatory and penalises particular groups who have legitimate reasons for needing additional bedrooms.
Our goal is to make sure that people are neither held back because of the barriers they face, nor made to endure additional hardship because of them. We hoped that a successful challenge would see the rules changed to remove any disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups.
What we did
We intervened in the case, which is when we provide expert advice or evidence to help the court with the issues they are considering.
We advised the court on the approach it should take to the ECHR Article 14 protection against discrimination, to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to how discrimination may be justified.
The judges found that the decision not to make exceptions to the regulations was unlawful in two of the seven claims: a disabled woman and her husband who had two bedrooms but who could not share a room because of her disabilities; and a couple and their disabled granddaughter whose third bedroom was regularly used by overnight carers.
The judge rejected the other claims, including that of the woman (who was a victim of domestic violence) and a man whose disabled son lived with him part-time.
The court found that in these cases, the failure to provide an exemption was not unlawful and any discrimination was met by possible ‘discretionary housing payments’.
Who will benefit and how
The judgment has helpfully clarified the circumstances in which the regulations are discriminatory. In future, people in similar situations to the successful claimants will not be penalised for needing an additional bedroom.
It is, however, disappointing that this wasn’t the finding in the remaining cases. People in similar situations to those claimants will have to rely on discretionary housing payments, although these are not guaranteed and can only be challenged through Judicial Review.