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Supreme Court clarifies 'domestic violence' in local authorities' homelessness duties

Meaning of 'domestic violence' wider than only physical violence

The Supreme Court has clarified the law in relation to a local authority's housing obligations to victims of domestic violence.

In Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow [2011] UKSC 3, the issue was what is meant by the word "violence" in section 177(1) of the Housing Act 1996. Is it limited to physical contact or does it include other forms of violent conduct?

The effect of ss 175, 177 and 193 of the 1996 Act is that it is not reasonable for a person to continue to occupy accommodation if it is probable that this will lead to domestic violence or other violence against him or other members of his household. In such circumstances a local housing authority must make accommodation available for that person, unless they refer the application to another local housing authority. 

In August 2008, the Appellant left the matrimonial home in which she lived with her husband, taking her two young children with her, and sought the help of the local housing authority. In interviews with housing officers, she complained of her husband's behaviour, which included shouting in front of the children, and stated that she was scared that if she confronted him he might hit her. The officers decided that she was not homeless as her husband had never actually hit her or threatened to do so.

On a review, the panel noted that the root cause of her homelessness was not that she had fled after a domestic incident. The panel believed the probability of domestic violence to be low. They concluded that it was reasonable for her to continue to occupy the matrimonial home. The Respondent local authority accepted that the housing officers and review panel had applied the Danesh meaning when deciding that the appellant was not homeless within the meaning of the 1996 Act.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal and sent the case back to be decided again by the local housing authority. Lady Hale gave the leading judgment. The Court held that "domestic violence" in s. 177(1) of the 1996 Act includes physical violence, threatening or intimidating behaviour and any other form of abuse which, directly or indirectly, may give rise to the risk of harm.

Lady Hale said that "physical violence" is not the only natural meaning of the word "violence". Another natural meaning is "strength or intensity of emotion; fervour, passion".

"Violence" is not a term of art. It is capable of bearing several meanings and applying to many different types of behaviour. These can change and develop over time. The essential question is whether an updated meaning is consistent with the statutory purpose. The purpose is to ensure that a person is not obliged to remain living in a home where she, her children or other members of her household are at risk of harm. A further purpose is that the victim of domestic violence has a real choice between remaining in her home and seeking protection from the criminal or civil law and leaving to begin a new life elsewhere.

The judgment is accessible here and the Supreme Court's summary here.