Under Section 177 (1) of the Housing Act 1996, victims of domestic violence are automatically treated as homeless and must be re-housed by the local council as a priority. A case reported last week examined the definition of domestic violence.
In Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow  UKSC 3, Lady Hale considered other definitions in use by local and national government and found that that there had been a huge shift in the understanding of domestic violence since the Act came out in 1996.
This case involved a mother, who left her council house and took her children with her. Hounslow council refused to accept her as a priority homeless person because she had not suffered any physical violence or threats of violence. Yemshaw had confirmed that she feared her husbands’ reaction if she confronted him about a possible affair and also stated that her husband denied her money.
Lady Hale commented that the definition of domestic violence had widened since 1996 and should be interpreted in the same way as in family matters, that is, “threatening or intimidating behaviour and any other form of abuse which, directly or indirectly may give rise to the risk of harm” and should include the locking of someone in a house and even depriving them of food and money.
Following the ruling Hounslow council said that the decision by the Supreme Court had widened the criteria significantly and raised questions for all local authorities when dealing with homelessness. The council said however, that in light of this decision it would change its policy to ensure that victims of domestic violence are treated as priority in situations such as these.
As the net catching incidents of domestic violence for the purposes of homelessness has been widened, obliging local authorities to more fully consider the circumstances in which applicants approach them, we would repeat the comments of Mrs Yemshaw’s solicitors and hope that although each case would be considered on its merits a hidden group of victims might now be able to come forward allowing lots of women to get away from abusive relationships.