Deborah Garvie
Deborah Garvie

By Deborah Garvie

Supreme Court clarifies rights of vulnerable homeless people

Today, an important judgment in the Supreme Court will make a huge difference to the thousands of vulnerable homeless people who, every year, approach their local council for help.

Our homeless legislation is quite rightly designed to keep vulnerable people from the streets.  No one wants to see children, pregnant women and other vulnerable adults sleeping rough or forced into dangerous situations.  This was the intention of Parliament.

But in some parts of the country, where the shortage of affordable homes is most acute, some very vulnerable people were being left without legal protection.  Although the concept of vulnerability was intended to be applied as an absolute test, in reality it was driven by available resources.

This was compounded by the 1998 ‘Pereira Test’, a High Court ruling which defined a vulnerable homeless person as ‘being less able to fend for oneself than the ordinary homeless person’.  With the average street homeless person dying at 47 years old, this set the bar very high indeed for vulnerable people.

As a result, people with serious mental and physical health problems, chronic illnesses and fleeing violence and abuse were left without meaningful help in the form of temporary or settled accommodation.

Over the years, Shelter’s advisers have seen many people in this position.  The frustration of being unable to assist them in obtaining a roof over their head – and the worry about what the future might hold for the person concerned – remains with them for years to come.

People like Mya, who had suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse as a child and became homeless again when she fled further violence from a family member.  Despite supporting evidence from medical professionals that she was in poor health and had considered taking her own life as a result of her trauma, she was told she didn’t qualify for assistance.  This was because her risk of self-harm was ‘not anything different to what would be found with ordinary street homeless people’.

The fact that Mya, despite all the challenges she faced, had been attending university; undertaking voluntary work; paying bills; and attending counselling was used as evidence that she was not a vulnerable person and need not be given even emergency accommodation.

It is this inhumane and nonsensical approach to the homelessness safety net that the Supreme Court has today said is wrong.  The Court’s unanimous view is that vulnerability should be measured against the ‘ordinary person’ if rendered homeless, not against statistical evidence of the characteristics of existing ‘street homeless’ people.

The judgment also emphasises the need to treat vulnerable homeless people as individuals, paying ‘close attention to the particular circumstances of the applicant’ and all his or her difficulties taken together.  Nearly Legal provide more detail of the judgment here.

Backed by evidence and support from St Mungos Broadway and Homeless Link, Shelter and Crisis intervened in this case to ensure the Court was aware of the very high burden of proof required for vulnerable people to be accommodated and the impact of being refused help when not deemed vulnerable enough.

The Government also intervened in the case to clarify that the statutory guidance on homelessness should apply throughout the country and should not be applied differently because of availability of resources or accommodation.

This judgment will not mean that all single homeless people will be rehoused. Until our housing shortage is properly addressed, and the holes in our housing safety net patched up, the stark truth is that some vulnerable people will continue to fall through the gaps – and, tragically, some will be the visible face of homelessness on our streets.

7 Responses to Supreme Court clarifies rights of vulnerable homeless people

  1. Jeremy Hoad says:

    This seems to be a significant step forward in applying the legislation and rules fairly and more compassionately. But this is still a technicality and the dramatic increase in homelessness under the last government will continue under the current government until our catastrophically broken housing provision in the UK is addressed.

  2. Francisca says:

    I have just been saved from becoming homeless by the kindness of
    someone I had never met after posting a plea on Facebook. I am 57, alone in the UK, battling a endless divorce case. Before I was quite well off but now my husband is the only one with access to all the money and only pays me maintenance which was not nearly enough to pay for housing, bills and solicitors’, not to speak of health care which he access privately and I can’t as I can’t pay for the therapy I need. When he stopped paying the rent outside of the maintenance payments to punish me for not agreeing with whatever he purposed I
    fell into serious financial difficulties. He filed for divorce in France where he knew that I would have a lot less rights than in the UK but now I have managed to find a very good solicitor who is taking my case to court here together with a barrister but although I am a victim of abuse and should have right to legal aid no one writes the letter I need to access it and the best lawyers who deal with international cases don’t accept clients on legal aid. Again, if it wasn’t for the kindness of a stranger I wouldn’t have had a roof over my head until my case goes to court. After having contributed to the system for many years in Europe I would have been left in the street. Now I
    have accommodation for 2 months and I hope that by then a judge here will see the injustice of all this. Am I vulnerable? Let’s see… I don’t think that I would have lasted long in the streets! I paid through the nose for so many years but when I needed help no one would help me but a complete stranger! Shame on whoever makes these laws. I was told to use my money towards accommodation, that I would then have no access to justice, a Human Right, didn’t bother anyone!

  3. ET56 says:

    I 59 widow in general old age health, paid into contributions for 40 yrs, now no job which means no place to live, and court possessing at moment.Basildon Council have washed their hands of me. Live on jsa £68 and nothing else, government changed the retirement age so I have to wait another 7 years until 2022. Should be insteresting to see where I end up.Thatchers idea of selling social housing, I said was bad,now look at the mess. If I was an migrant I would get a house and lots of money.

  4. Deborah Garvie says:

    Hello Francisca and ET56, I’m sorry to read of your predicament. Please call our free housing advice Helpline on 0808 800 4444 if you need assistance. If you’d like to share your stories with our Media Team, please contact

  5. Stephen McNally says:

    ET56 and Francisca I hope you get past your present problems but if you need any help and Shelter cant help ET56 or Solicitors cant help Francisca let me know I help people through my web site and usually get the best deal for whoever I am helping. Many people to contact for references but look at the web site its all free so don’t worry about cost. I am here to help. Steve

  6. Susan O'neill says:

    I think it appalling that so many have ended up homeless because of a government who has instituted policies enabling the likelihood of many victims of these social injustices to end up homeless.

  7. Albert Hessler says:

    some parts of the country, where the shortage of affordable homes is most acute, some very vulnerable people were being left without legal protection. Although the concept of vulnerability was intended to be applied as an absolute test, in reality it was driven by available resources.
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