The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 changedthe homelessness legislation to give automatic priority need to survivors of domestic abuse. Anna Socci, Senior Legal Writer at Shelter, explains the changes and what they mean.
Changesto homelessness legislationmean that:
- the new statutory definition of ‘domestic abuse’ replaces the term ‘domestic violence’
- people made homeless due to being a victim of domestic abuse have automatic priority need for homelessness assistance
These changes are brought about by amendments to Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and to the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002/2051 made by section 78 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.
New priority need category for survivors
Homelessness law now explicitly states that a person who is homeless as a result of being a victim of domestic abuse has a priority need for accommodation. This means that people fleeing domestic abuse now have automatic priority need when they apply to a local authority for homelessness assistance.
This new category is contained in section 189(1)(e) Housing Act 1996.
Vulnerability assessment no longer required
Before this change, survivors of domestic abuse had to show they were vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation due to violence. Local authorities had to consider the vulnerability test when deciding if survivors were in priority need.
This was a huge hurdle for homeless applicants who had to leave home because of violence and abuse. Assessing vulnerability involves a comparison with an ordinaryperson if made homeless. The test is whether the applicant would be ‘significantly more vulnerable if homeless than an ordinary person’ which means the applicant must show to suffer more harm than many others in the same position.
The vulnerability test remains relevantfor homelessness applicants who have ceased to occupy accommodation due to violence or threats of violence from another person, which does not amount to domestic violence.
Itwill be easier for survivors who are homeless as theresultof domestic abuse, including single people with no children, to get local authority help and support with safe accommodation at point of extreme crisis in their life. Previously, survivors needed to show the impact homelessness would have on them, and theywere often required to get medical or other intrusive evidence of their abuse.
New definition of domestic abuse
The new statutory definition of domestic abuse covers much more than physical violence. It develops common law principles established by the Supreme Court in Yemshaw v Hounslow and expands on the cross-government definition of domestic violence.
Domestic abuse can consist of a single incident or a course of conduct over time.It can include behaviour directed at another individual, for example someone’s child.
Abusive behaviour includes:
- physical or sexual abuse
- violent or threatening behaviour
- psychological or emotional abuse
- controlling or coercive behaviour
- economic or financial abuse
Economic abuse means any behaviour that has a substantial adverse effect on a person’s ability to acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or to obtain goods or services.
Survivor and perpetrator must be personally connected
For the abuse to be classed as domestic, both victim and perpetrator must be aged 16 or over, and be personally connected by either:
- marriage or civil partnership, including past, present or intended
- being or having been in an intimate relationship
- having joint parental responsibility for a child under 18, including in the past
- being related within the meaning ofsection 63(1)of theFamily Law Act 1996
Relatives means parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. Step and half relations areincluded.
Different types of relationships are captured, including ex-partners and other family members.Paid and unpaid carers are excluded unless they are also personally connected, such as a family member.
Homelessness decisions affected
The new priority need category applies to all decisions made on or after 5 July 2021, including reviews and appeals of decisions made before then.
The new definition applies in homeless applications when a local authority housing officer decides whether:
- someone is a victim of domestic abuse and therefore in priority need
- the applicant is homeless because it is not reasonable for them to continue to occupy the accommodation
As the definition of domestic abuse now is broader, it also can affect any residual test in the homelessness application process. For example, a decision of intentional homelessness because of rent arrears can now be challenged if it can be shown that the rent arrears resulted from economic abuse.
Statutory guidance on domestic abuse
The Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities has been updated to reflect the impact of the new statutory definition of domestic abuse, and the new priority need category for survivors who arehomelessdue to domestic abuse, into the homelessness application process. The amendments were published on 5 July 2021
The Domestic Abuse Guidance Framework sets out standards and best practice for statutory and non-statutory bodies working with victims, perpetrators and commissioning services. It seeks to increase awareness and inform the response to domestic abuse of police, local authorities, and the NHS.
Local authorities are key partners in local domestic violence partnerships. They should have policies in place to identify and respond to domestic abuse. Alongside their role in tackling homelessness, they should take an active role in identifying victims and referring them for help and support.
Homelessness applications from survivors
Local authorities should be flexible in how they allow survivors of domestic abuse to make a homelessness application and maximise their options, including allowing a third party to make an initial approach.
Housing officers should be aware that this may be the first time a survivor has disclosed their abuse. The period during which they are planning or making their exit is often the most dangerous time for them and their children.
Chapter 21 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance stresses that local authority decision makers dealing with applications from survivors should consider undertaking training from specialist domestic abuse organisations. By understanding the indicators of domestic abuse through professional development, housing officers can:
- increase their confidence to speak to people experiencing abuse
- assess better the risks and housing options for the survivor
- include safety measures in the survivor’s personalised housing plan
Homelessness enquiries and evidence of domestic abuse
Local authorities must not have a blanket approach toward domestic abuse which requires corroborative or police evidence. In some cases, evidence of actual or threatened violence may not be available. For example, if there were no adult witnesses and the applicant was too frightened or ashamed to report incidents to family, friends or the police.
Housing officers should not approach the alleged perpetrator, since this could generate further violence and abuse. As far as possible, decision makers should use existing statements of events rather than asking the survivors to relive experiences. They must not ask the survivor to return to their property and collect documentation if there is any risk that this could put them in danger.
If it is appropriate, and only with the survivor’s consent, housing officers may seek information from friends and relatives, social services, health professionals, multi-agency risk assessment conference (MARAC), domestic abuse support services, or the police.
Information on survivors to be kept safe and secure
Local authorities should ensure theyhaveprocedures in place to keep information on survivors safe and secure.
Domestic abuse can continue long after a relationship breakdown. Perpetrators can go to great lengths to seek information on their victims and their whereabouts. This is particularly true when extended family members or multiple perpetrators are involved, for example in cases of female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and honour-based violence.
Shelter Legal online guide to housing law