The UK’s bedroom tax has been found to be unjustifiably discriminatory in the case of a victim of domestic violence who had been placed in social housing under the “Sanctuary Scheme”. The European Court of Human Rights made the ruling on 24th October 2019 in a landmark decision. The AIRE Centre intervened in the case.

The case concerned the introduction of the Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulation 2012 (“the 2012 Regulation”) by the UK Government, which meant that tenants in the social housing sector had their housing benefit reduced by 14% if they had a spare bedroom or by 25% if they had two or more spare rooms. This became widely known as the ‘bedroom tax’. The application to the European Court of Human Rights was brought by A. A had been identified as being at risk of extreme domestic violence, and was referred by the police to the “Sanctuary Scheme”, a scheme aiming to protect those at risk from the most severe forms of domestic abuse. As provided for by the rules of her placement in the scheme, she also had some adaptions made to her property, including the installation of a “panic room” in the attic for herself and her son with whom she lived in the three-bedroom house. The Court considered that the case fell to be examined under Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol 1 due to the alleged discriminatory treatment resulting from the imposition of the bedroom tax. The Court noted that the legitimate aim of the present scheme, to incentivise those with ‘extra’ bedrooms to leave their homes for smaller ones, was in conflict with the aim of Sanctuary Scheme - to enable those at serious risk of domestic violence to remain in their own homes safely, should they wish to do so. Given those two legitimate but conflicting aims, the Court considered that the impact of treating A, or others housed in Sanctuary Schemes in the same way as any other housing benefit recipient affected by the bedroom tax, had been disproportionate and did not correspond to the legitimate aim of the measure. Accordingly, the Court found that the imposition of the bedroom tax on this small and easily identifiable group had not been justified and was discriminatory.

While the Courts in the UK will respect the legislature's policy choice unless it is “manifestly without reasonable foundation”, this case is particularly important as it signified the end of the “manifestly without reasonable foundation” argument being used by the government in defence of claims brought by vulnerable women, such as A. 

The AIRE Centre intervened in the case, to emphasise to the Court the applicable standards relating to cases involving domestic violence that raise issues of gender-based discrimination. The AIRE Centre reminded the Court that there appears to be uniform acceptance of the fact that although domestic violence does also occur against male victims, women and girls are the predominant victims, and particularly of serious and life-threatening forms of violence. The Centre’s intervention reflected on the international legal position including the Council of Europe’s recognition of domestic violence as constituting gender-based discrimination as set out in the Istanbul Convention. The AIRE Centre invited the Court to review its case law relating to the protection and support to be offered to victims of domestic violence in light of the Istanbul Convention and the need for protection to be extended beyond the scope of prosecution, investigation and temporary protection from immediate harm.

Read our full intervention here.