Supreme Court broadens meaning of "vulnerable"

19 May 2015

Local authorities may have to review thousands of applicants for accommodation after the Supreme Court broadened the meaning of “vulnerable”.

In Hotak, Johnson and Kanu v London Borough of Southwark & Anor [2015] UKSC 30, the Supreme Court overturned the Pereira test for vulnerable homeless people (R v Camden LBC, Ex p Pereira [1998] EWCA Civ 863). The three appeals concerned the duty of local housing authorities towards homeless people who claim to be “vulnerable” and therefore have a “priority need” for accommodation under the Housing Act 1996. 

“Priority need” is given to pregnant women, people with dependent children, people threatened with homelessness due to an emergency such as fire or flood, and those who are “vulnerable” as a result of “old age, mental illness or handicap or physical ability or other special reason”.

Matt Hutchings of Cornerstone Barristers, who represented Shelter and Crisis, interveners in the appeals, says: “The Supreme Court overturned the test that has been used by local authorities for 16 years to decide whether a homeless person is ‘vulnerable’ and so in priority need of accommodation. 

“Previously, under guidance given by the Court of Appeal in the case of Pereira, applicants had to show that they were more vulnerable than an ‘ordinary homeless person’. Statistics showed that such a person was likely to suffer from very poor mental and/or physical health. So the test became ‘more vulnerable than the vulnerable’. 

“The Supreme Court decided that this was wrong, and the correct test was ‘more vulnerable than an ordinary person’. In so doing, they have reinstated the original intention of Parliament.”

In his judgment, Lord Neuberger said: “It does not seem probable that Parliament intended vulnerability to be judged by reference to what a housing officer thought to be the situation of an ordinary actual homeless person. Such an assessment would be more likely to lead to arbitrary and unpredictable outcomes than if one takes the ordinary person if rendered homeless, and considers how the applicant would fare as against him.”

He added that local authorities are required to make provision even where households include adults in reasonable physical health.



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