By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey
Impunity Watch Staff Writer
LONDON, England — On October 24, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”), in a highly significant decision, held that a reduction in housing benefits based on occupancy violated Article 14 (Prohibition of Discrimination) and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (Protection of Property) in relation to domestic violence victims.
“A”, a British national, was a victim of rape, assault, harassment, and stalking at the hands of her ex-partner. She was living in a “Sanctuary Scheme” home – properties specifically designed to enable women and children in grave risk of domestic violence to live securely in their own homes – with her 11-year old son. The adaption to the three-bedroom house included the installation of a “panic room” in the attic for herself and her son.
In 2013, new rules on housing benefits in the social housing sector, more commonly known as the “Bedroom Tax,” reduced the benefit by 14% for people with a “spare” room in their home. Proponents of the new rules claimed that the Bedroom Tax was designed to free up much-needed bigger homes. Since “A” and her son were living in a three-bedroom house, their housing benefit decreased as a result. “A” challenged the Bedroom Tax, contending that the reduction in the benefit put them in unstable circumstances, which were not remedied by other payment schemes. The UK Supreme Court dismissed their claim and they appealed to ECHR in 2017 on the basis of gender discrimination as the victim of gender-based violence, relying on Article 14.
The Court noted that “A” and her son would face hardship and a risk to personal safety if they had to move. The Court then stated that the regulation’s aim to urge people to move was in conflict with the Sanctuary Scheme’s goal of allowing victims of gender-based violence to stay in their homes. The progress of gender equality is a major goal for the member States and “very weighty reasons” must be provided before gender discrimination could be considered lawful.
Here, the Court determined that treating all people in Sanctuary Schemes in the same manner was disproportionate as it did not relate to the legitimate aim of the measure. The Government failed to offer any weighty reasons to rationalize prioritizing the aim of the Scheme over that of enabling victims of domestic violence to stay in their homes. Therefore, the Court held that “A” had endured a violation of her rights under Article 14 in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
In the aftermath of this decision by ECHR, lawyers have demanded action on nearly 300 women estimated to be in similar situations. As the vast majority of those in the Sanctuary Scheme are women, this decision will help limit gender-based and domestic violence victim discrimination. This ruling is significant not only because it over-turned a troubling UK Supreme Court decision, but this ECHR ruling can potentially favorably impact other domestic violence victims in similar situations in other member states.
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