Two crucial legal victories have boosted the hopes of campaigners fighting to defeat the “bedroom tax” and highlight its impact on hundreds of thousands of disabled people.
The first success saw the first-tier tribunal rule that a small room being used by a disabled man to store the equipment he needs to live independently was not a bedroom.
Surinder Lall, who is blind and lives in an adapted housing association flat in central London, was facing a cut in his housing benefit because Westminster council said he was a single person living in a two-bedroom flat.
But he argued in his appeal that he uses the room for his closed-circuit TV magnification reading system, and other equipment.
He told ITV News: “It enables me to function independently. I can do a lot of things without the help of other people.”
Lall said it was “nonsense” to describe the room as a bedroom, and added: “There isn’t a bed in there. It’s all my equipment in there.”
Judge Conrad Haley-Halinski agreed, and ruled that “the room in question was never intended to be a bedroom, and has never been used as a bedroom”, and that it “contains equipment necessary for the appellant to try and overcome his disability”.
He added: “The term ‘bedroom’ is nowhere defined. I apply the ordinary English meaning. The room in question cannot be so described.”
The case joins four others, all in Scotland, in which tribunals have over-turned the “bedroom tax” housing benefit decisions of local authorities.
A Westminster council spokeswoman said it did not believe it had grounds to appeal.
She said that the council only reduced Lall’s housing benefit because his landlord had described the flat as having two bedrooms. Shortly before the tribunal, the housing association changed its mind and decided it was a one-bedroom flat.
She added: “The council had previously invited Mr Lall to apply for a discretionary housing payment to make up the shortfall from the loss of housing benefit stemming from a second bedroom, but he turned this down.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Our necessary reforms mean housing benefit no longer pays for a spare bedroom in the social housing sector, but the issue of how rooms are classified is a matter for landlords and their tenants.”
She said DWP was seeking to appeal two of the four Scottish cases, although it had not yet decided whether to appeal the Westminster ruling.
She said DWP had “re-issued guidance clarifying that landlords should consider the composition of the household and number of designated bedrooms when determining whether a property is under occupied, not by measuring rooms”.
Meanwhile, eight disabled adults and children have been granted permission to take their cases challenging the application of the bedroom tax to the court of appeal.
The high court ruled in July that the government’s policy did discriminate against disabled people, but that that discrimination was justified under the Human Rights Act and was therefore lawful.
The ruling meant that the regulations – which came into force on 1 April and see tenants in social housing punished financially if they are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes – should not apply to disabled children who need their own bedrooms for impairment-related reasons, but should apply to disabled adults in similar situations.
The judgment followed a three-day hearing in May into claims brought by disabled people and their families against the regulations. Eight of them are now appealing against a ruling one of their lawyers described as “inconsistent and difficult to understand”.
Granting them permission to appeal, Lord Justice Aikens said that the cases “…raise issues of public importance concerning the amended housing benefit scheme and the needs of disabled young people and so should be considered by the court of appeal.”
Lawyers from Leigh Day, representing two of the disabled adults among the claimants, said they would argue that the discriminatory impact of the measure on disabled people “cannot be justified and is unlawful”.
Lawyers for the disabled children involved in the case will also appeal the earlier ruling, because they are still not entitled to full housing benefit and their families do not know how they will be treated in the future.
This is because the Department for Work and Pensions has refused to publish new regulations – despite being told by the court to do so – to explain how they and other families with disabled children should be dealt with by local authorities, and has also refused to say when these new regulations will be published.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “The courts have already found that we met our legal obligations with this policy and we are confident that they will continue to do so.”
26 September 2013