Disabled people were this week seeking a “vital” appeal court ruling that could have a huge impact on discrimination in the benefits system, and ensure that government spending decisions are subject to human rights laws.
The three cases, involving four disabled people, were heard at the Court of Appeal in London, although a ruling is not expected for several weeks.
Their lawyers argue that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) breached article 14 of the Human Rights Act – on discrimination – by not allowing their housing benefit claims to be treated differently to those of non-disabled people.
The regulations stated that local authorities could not provide housing benefit for the extra bedrooms needed by the four young disabled people who were living in private rented accommodation.
They want the court to declare that they are entitled to housing benefit at a rate that meets their housing needs.
In the first case, Ian Burnip was told by Birmingham City Council that he could not claim local housing allowance (LHA) to cover the extra bedroom he needed for an overnight care worker.
The second case is being taken by Richard Gorry, the father of two disabled children, one who has a physical impairment and the other who has autism. Gorry is fighting Wiltshire County Council’s refusal to provide enough LHA for the children to have separate bedrooms.
The third case is being taken by Rebecca Trengove, whose daughter Lucy – who died earlier this year – was unable to secure the LHA she needed for an extra room for an overnight care worker from Walsall Council.
The LHA rules on extra bedrooms have been changed by the government since the original decisions were made, and mean that since April 2011 extra LHA is now given to disabled people who need a bedroom for an overnight care worker.
But the new rules still do not help the Gorry family – and others in similar situations – whose disabled children need separate bedrooms.
Polly Sweeney, Burnip’s solicitor, from the legal firm Irwin Mitchell, said: “This case is of vital importance to promoting equality of disabled people and ensuring their ability to live independently.
“The case seeks to confirm the principle that where the application of a universal policy or rule, such as the way housing benefit is calculated, has a discriminatory impact on disabled people, then the government should consider if they need to make special provision for disabled people to ensure they are not discriminated against.
“If successful, this judgement is likely to have widespread implications for policy-making.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has “intervened” in the case “to ensure that human rights law is interpreted in the correct way to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against”.
An EHRC spokeswoman said it was “very important” that the court overturned the original decision of the benefits tribunal which “found that the principle of treating different cases differently did not apply in this case”.
She said: “If it were upheld it could mean any provisions requiring public expenditure would not be subject to protections under human rights law.
“The provision of housing benefit at a slightly higher rate in a small number of cases would far outweigh the harm a rigid application of the rules relating to LHA could entail.”
Ian Burnip’s mother Linda, who set up the Local Housing Allowance Reform Group to campaign for changes in the system, said: “Winning this case would reinforce disabled people’s right to not be discriminated against within the benefits system and would reinforce their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
She hopes a victory will help disabled people challenge changes to be introduced through the Welfare Reform Act, including benefit cuts for working-age residents of social housing with spare bedrooms.
A Birmingham City Council spokeswoman said: “With the law our hands were tied. We could only give [Ian Burnip] that amount of benefit. If we had given him more we would have been breaking the law, even though we were obviously sympathetic to the case.”
A Walsall Council spokesman said: “There is no comment that we want to make other than we sympathise with the customer but were bound by the housing benefit legislation at the time.”
A Wiltshire County Council spokesman also said it had been administering the benefit on behalf of DWP and had made its decision based on DWP guidance.
DWP said it could not comment as the court had yet to deliver its ruling.
22 March 2012