Women’s Right to Housing in Cases of Domestic Violence in the United Kingdom
UK Court expands definition of domestic violence in context of housing rights
The Supreme Court of the UK confirmed that the legal definition of the word ‘violence’ expands beyond physical contact, to encompass emotional and psychological as well as financial abuse, for the purposes of being classified as homeless and receiving access to social housing.
The appellant was a married woman who left her family home with her two young children because she felt her husband treated her as less than human. He yelled at her, withheld finances, and made her afraid he would hit her or take the children away. She went to the local housing authority for help finding accommodation. As her husband had never hit her or threatened to physically harm her, the housing authority refused to assist her. They believed that because there was no physical violence, it was reasonable for her to stay in the home.
Section 177(1) of the Homelessness Act (2002) (Act) states that it is not reasonable for a person to remain in their home if it is “probable that this will lead to domestic violence or other violence” against that person or their household members. A previous decision, Danesh v. Kensington and Chelsea Royal London Borough Council, held that violence in the housing context meant physical contact, and a person could not be classified as ‘homeless’ if they are subject to verbal abuse or gestures. Nonetheless, the Court stated that the word ‘violence’ must be understood to include psychological, emotional or financial harm in addition to physical harm.
The Supreme Court noted in this case that the Act was amended in 2002 from including persons suffering from domestic violence to those suffering domestic violence or other violence. The concept of violence covers all kinds of non-physical behavior. The word ‘domestic’ refers to the type of relationship between the parties, not the type of activity. Additionally, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s General Recommendation 19 includes physical, mental, psychological, and sexual harm or threats in its definition of gender-based violence, and this definition was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Domestically, a 1992 report on domestic violence defined ‘violence’ as extending beyond physical force to “any form of physical, sexual or psychological molestation or harassment which has a serious detrimental effect upon the health and well-being of the victim.” In 2005, the Home Office promoted a similar understanding of violence, and emphasized the need for government agencies to adopt this common definition. The Court stated this expanded definition of ‘violence’ is more appropriate to our understanding today and necessary, since domestic violence can often escalate quickly.
The case was remitted to the London Borough of Hounslow to make a fresh decision in respect of Ms. Yemshaw in light of the expanded definition.
Women’s Aid Federation of England
This decision has significant implications for the human right to adequate housing, particularly with regard to women’s access to housing. One commentator on the decision has written that the impact of the Supreme Court’s expanded definition of violence which includes emotional and psychological as well as financial abuse is that “anyone threatened with domestic violence, within the Supreme Court’s wider meaning, will not be expected to remain in local authority housing with their abuser. Although the judgement, given by Baroness Hale, did not mention human rights, it clearly impacts on article 8rights to family life, and……,could greatly increase the number of people to which local authorities are obliged to provide housing.”
This case is particularly relevant given that homelessness and housing instability often accompany victims of intimate partner violence, who are predominantly women. ESCR-Net’s Women and ESCR (WESCR) Working Group has highlighted domestic violence, which impacts on women’s security of tenure, as an impediment to the full realization of women’s rights to land, housing and natural resources. This reaffirms the perspective of Miloon Kothari, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing who, based on regional consultations, has written that “[T]he widespread prevalence of gender-based violence is a central thread in the fabric of human rights violations faced by women, including in violations of the right to adequate housing and land.” Given the global scale of domestic violence and related housing instability, this case is of relevance across jurisdictions. In terms of linking domestic violence and women’s human right to adequate housing, the UN provides useful guidance towards holding States accountable and ensuring the rights and dignity of all women.
Special thanks to ESCR-Net member:Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.