Southwark council can no longer avoid HMO rules when housing families in shared accommodation

Destitute families placed in shared houses and flats by social services should see their living conditions improved following a judicial review in the High Court.

The case described below will mainly affect families who, because of their immigration status, cannot claim benefits or access mainstream housing, but whose applications to remain in the UK are being considered by the Home Office.

While they wait for the Home Office to consider their case, if they become destitute then social services may have some duties to help with housing under s17 Children Act 1989.

Many of these families are placed by social services in flats or houses where they have to share facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms with strangers. Some are placed in very cramped and unsuitable conditions where children have to share a bathroom with adult single men that they don’t know. In some cases teenage children have had to share a bed with their parent(s).

This case was about what minimum standards such families can expect and whether the council was able to set lower standards for children of families with no recourse to public funds.

The case

Lou CrisfieldHousing expert Lou Crisfield explains the detail of the case below:

When Ms Titiloye, a Nigerian lady with two teenage children, became destitute her family was accommodated by the London Borough of Southwark in a single room in a four bedroom flat. The living room had been converted into a bedroom and so there were five separate households living in the property all sharing one kitchen, bathroom and toilet.

Southwark Council refused to recognise the property as being a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) – to which the licensing and standards regime under the 2004 Housing Act (and Southwark’s ‘additional licencing scheme’) would apply. This regime sets minimum size standards for rooms, minimum kitchen and bathroom facilities for set numbers of households and minimum safety requirements.

The 2004 Act only applies to accommodation which is occupied as someone’s ‘only or main residence. Southwark Council argued that because the family was being accommodated on a temporary basis under a nightly letting, they were not occupying as their ‘only or main residence’.

On behalf of Ms Titiloye, Miles & Partners issued a claim for judicial review of Southwark’s refusal to recognise the property as an HMO, contending that occupation by destitute families with no recourse to public funds would almost inevitably be occupation as their only or main residence. Daniel Clark of Doughty Street Chambers was instructed as counsel for Ms Titiloye.

Two days before Southwark had to reply to the court, Ms Titiloye and her family were moved to self-contained accommodation. The council then suggested that the claim had become academic and should be withdrawn.

However, the evidence appeared to show a systemic problem which might be responsible for the poor living conditions of a significant number of families and young children. The response to a freedom of information request had shown that as at 4 September 2018:

  • the London Borough of Southwark was accommodating 182 families under section 17 of The Children Act 1989;
  • of those, 153 were in accommodation where they shared a toilet, bathroom and/or cooking facilities – the average time spent there was 20 months;
  • of those, 63 were accommodated within Southwark – so that Southwark would be responsible for issues of HMO licensing; and
  • of those, fewer than 10 were licensed as a house of multiple occupation.

On that basis, despite her own improved living conditions, Ms Titiloye intended to invite the court to proceed to consider the matter so that other families would not have to suffer as she had.

Southwark then agreed to settle the claim with our client. In doing so, the council agreed to recognise the property she had been housed in as an HMO. In the settlement agreement, which was endorsed by the court, the council accepted that:

“occupation of living accommodation by families accommodated under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 is capable of constituting occupation as their “residence” within the meaning of section 254(2)(c) of the Housing Act (“HA”) 2004, even if the accommodation is secured on a nightly-let basis… accordingly… where such families are accommodated in such accommodation, without an identified end date, on the basis that they have no other suitable accommodation available to them, they will generally be occupying it as their “only or main residence” within the meaning of section 254(2)(c)”

‘It is not known whether other local authorities have also been avoiding the application of the HMO licensing regime to accommodation used to accommodate families in the same way,’ says Lou Crisfield. ‘But this case sends an important message to all local authority social services teams that destitute families are entitled to the same minimum standards in their homes as other families.’

‘For at least 54 families accommodated in shared accommodation within Southwark, this settlement should lead to immediate recognition that the relevant properties constitute houses in multiple occupation and steps must be taken to ensure that they are registered as such and that landlords make improvements or reduce occupation levels to meet the minimum standards.’

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please note that the law may have changed since the date this article was published. You should always take legal advice relating to your individual circumstances.