A landmark court ruling is set to help disabled campaigners fight discrimination within the benefits system.
The Court of Appeal ruled this week that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) breached article 14 of the Human Rights Act – on discrimination – by not allowing the housing benefit claims of four young disabled people to be treated differently to claims of non-disabled people.
DWP regulations stated that their local authorities could not provide housing benefit for the extra bedrooms they needed in their private rented accommodation.
But the court ruled that the four were entitled to housing benefit at a rate that met their housing needs, even though this meant extra public spending.
The ruling also confirms that government spending decisions should be subject to human rights laws.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which intervened in one of the cases, said the ruling would help stop disabled people being evicted as a result of the government’s new housing benefit cap.
Polly Sweeney, a solicitor with the legal firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented Ian Burnip, one of the four young disabled people, said the judgment would have a “huge impact” on discrimination in the benefits system.
She said: “Whenever the government introduces new policies, or reviews existing policies, they now face a duty to ensure that appropriate provision is made for disabled people to ensure that discrimination does not occur.“
In the first case, 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 was 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 third case was taken by Richard Gorry, the father of two disabled children, one who has spina bifida and the other who has Down’s syndrome. Gorry was fighting Wiltshire County Council’s refusal to provide enough LHA for his daughters to have separate bedrooms.
The LHA rules on extra bedrooms have been changed by the government since the original benefits 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 did not help the Gorry family – and others in similar situations – whose children need separate bedrooms.
The court ruling will ensure they are now awarded a rate of housing benefit which allows the girls to sleep in separate rooms.
Ian Burnip’s mother Linda, a leading disabled activist, who set up the Local Housing Allowance Reform Group to campaign for changes in the system, said: “It shows that even when legislation is in place, it can be overturned.”
She said she hoped the result would give hope to disabled people concerned about the government’s disability living allowance reforms, and its wider programme of cuts.
She said: “The benefit system has to not discriminate against disabled people, even if that means they should have better treatment rather than equal treatment.”
But she warned that the coalition’s cuts to legal aid would make it difficult for disabled people to go to court to secure those rights, even if they believe they have been discriminated against.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said the government would “carefully consider its response” to the judgment.
But he said that, “given the need to keep the housing benefit budget under control”, the government was “disappointed” that the Court of Appeal had not followed the approach of the tribunal that had heard the case previously.
He said the tribunal concluded that the levels of LHA paid to the families were not discriminatory when viewed as part of the wider benefits available to disabled people.
17 May 2012