The images we see of domestic violence often show the violence itself – and end there. While this is shocking, it also does not reveal the full experience that a victim of domestic violence goes through. For some, that experience will involve leaving the violent partner. But the story doesn’t conclude there: leaving brings many of its own challenges, including finding a new place to live.
When the victim is in this vulnerable position, he or she may need to be housed by a local authority. It is at this point that the Human Rights Act can come into play. But what impact does the Human Rights Act have on the duties local authorities have to house domestic violence victims?
The impact of the Human Rights Act
The Human Rights Act has had the result of increasing the duties which local authorities owe to victims of domestic violence. In some cases, it has allowed victims of domestic violence to obtain housing when they may not have been able to otherwise. Below we examine two cases in which this has happened.
Case Study 1: “I’ve run away from violence – now let me find a new home”
In 2014, a mother and her children – the youngest of whom was 6 years old – fled the London Borough of Hounslow to escape domestic violence. They arrived in Ealing and applied to go on the Housing Register, hoping that the local authority would provide them with accommodation. However, their application was rejected. This was because families were not allowed to go on the Housing Register if they had not lived in Ealing for at least 5 years.
The mother challenged the decision not to provide housing. In court, her lawyers argued that Ealing Council’s policy of automatically rejecting applications for housing if the family had not lived in Ealing for at least 5 years discriminated against women. Discrimination on the basis of sex (as well as race, religion, language, etc.) is against Article 14 of the ECHR.
This was the lawyers’ argument that the policy was discriminatory:
• Women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men. The lawyers relied on evidence from the charity Women’s Aid to show this.
• Since women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, they are more likely to have moved around in order to escape the violence.
• Because of this, women are less likely to meet the Council’s criteria of having to live in Ealing for 5 years before they claim council housing.
• Since women are less able to get council housing, the Council’s policy discriminates against women.
The Judge accepted these arguments, finding that the Council’s policy was unlawful: it discriminated against women and was therefore against Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Judge was able to make this finding because of the Human Rights Act, which makes it unlawful for public authorities (such as local councils) to breach any of the Convention rights.
You can read the full judgment in the case, HA, R (On the Application Of) v London Borough of Ealing, here: HA, R (On the Application Of) v London Borough of Ealing
Case Study 2: “Trying to find safety doesn’t make me an unfit parent”
Yolande was another woman who was fleeing domestic violence with her children. Every time she settled down in a new town with the children, her husband would discover where they were, which meant that they had to move all over again. Finally, the family arrived in London.
Social Services in Yolande’s new area told her that she was an unfit parent because she had moved her children so many times. They told her that the children would have to be taken into care.
Yolande asked a charity for help. The charity helped her challenge Social Services’ decision, claiming that the decision did not respect Yolande’s right to family life. The right to family life is protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The challenge meant that Social Services reconsidered their decision, and decided that Yolande should be allowed to stay together with her children and that they would help the family to find suitable housing. Social Services would have been aware that under the Human Rights Act, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that breaches a Convention right.
The Government is planning to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Leaked plans show the government intends to allow Judges to ignore rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (the highest court which considers breaches of the ECHR) and reduce the amount of compensation individuals can obtain following human rights claims. Soldiers and journalists will also get greater protection from human rights claims under the Government’s new plans. A spokesman from the Government, however, has dismissed the leaked plans as ‘speculation’. We will have to wait and see what happens.
What is the Human Rights Act?
The Human Rights Act incorporates the European Convention (ECHR) on Human Rights into UK law.
The ECHR is an international treaty listing a series of basic rights that governments must respect. These rights include the right to life, freedom from torture and the right to family life.
The Human Rights Act allows UK judges to take the rights conferred by the ECHR into account when deciding cases and makes it unlawful for public authorities (such as local government) to act in a way that breaches any of the ECHR rights
by Anastasia Solopova
Anastasia is a guest blogger for Grayfords. She is a law student at Westminster University, studying for her Graduate Diploma in Law. She graduated from Oxford University in 2015 where she received her undergraduate degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.