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Judge rejects application for interim relief after council offered unfurnished flat to claimant particularly vulnerable to COVID-19

A High Court judge has rejected an application for interim relief against a district council amid claims that an unfurnished one-bedroom flat was unsuitable accommodation for a claimant who was particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

In Escott, R (On the application of) v Chichester District Council [2020] EWHC 1687 the claimant had a complex medical history in relation to both his mental and physical health.

His solicitors wrote to the council saying he needed to have a fridge, cooker and basic furniture.

The case was heard on 5 May 2020 with a written ruling published on Bailii last week.

Mr Justice Martin Spencer said: “In my judgment, it is, perhaps, instructive that, although this is an area of law in which there has been significant litigation over the years, there is not one authority that I have been able to find that sets out that, in order to comply with its duty to provide suitable accommodation, a local authority must provide furnished accommodation; a search on the usual search engines for furnished and unfurnished accommodation yielded no results.

“In those circumstances, and in any event, I take the view that it cannot seriously be argued that a local authority, when providing accommodation, must always provide basic furniture and local authorities, to my knowledge, frequently comply with their statutory obligations by providing unfurnished flats of the kind which has been provided here.”

He added: “In those circumstances, insofar as Mr Johnson submitted at one stage that the argument on behalf of the claimant applied outwith the circumstances of COVID-19 and the claimant's particular vulnerability, I reject such a submission. In my view, local authorities may well often, and do, fulfil their statutory duty by providing unfurnished accommodation.”

The judge said the stronger argument on behalf of the claimant was not a general one, but a specific one relating to his particular circumstances, namely, that, because of his particular vulnerability, he needed not to just self-isolate but to shield from the risk of infection and, by doing that, he needed to be in accommodation which was not only appropriate for him to avoid contact with others, but also had sufficient facilities to enable him to remain in the accommodation for 24 hours a day and not expose himself to the outside world and the risk of infection.

Mr Justice Spencer said: “Whilst, on the one hand, I can see that the individual needs of a particular person may be enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of it in relation to the need to self-isolate and to shield, it must also be the case that the heightened requirements, as illustrated by the need to get homeless people off the street and into emergency accommodation, is balanced by the difficulties faced by local authorities in meeting the demands which arise where accommodation is scarce, where the needs of the public are heightened and enhanced and where the local authority's own staff are struggling to cope with the demands made on them, where they also have to work from home and do the best they can to assist people in the community, risking their own health in so doing.”

The judge said that counsel for Chichester was right in her submission that the claim was premature and that the application was misconceived.

“I do not consider that the local authority have in any way acted unlawfully in failing to provide a fridge or a cooker or a bed. Their primary duty is in relation to the provision of accommodation and they can only offer accommodation which is available to them. There are different types of accommodation, which they have been able to obtain, to offer to customers: hostel accommodation, bed-and-breakfast accommodation, hotel accommodation or self-contained flats, which are unfurnished. They have to juggle the demands made on them with what they have available and it is reasonable, in my judgment, for the local authority to satisfy those demands by acting in the way that they have and giving the options that they have done to this particular claimant.”

Mr Justice Martin Spencer said he considered it to be significant that the claimant accepted the offer, although he was told when the offer was made that the flat was unfurnished. “I do not consider that the local authority has a legal obligation to provide the items which are the subject matter of this application: that is the fridge, the bed and the cooker.

“I was surprised, and I reject, the suggestion that a microwave oven is not capable of cooking food only heating it, as it seems to me to be wholly self-evident that a microwave is capable of cooking food and a microwave oven is an appropriately-useful piece of equipment for basic food preparation. The claimant has been provided with that and it is unarguable, in my view, that the local authority acted unlawfully in failing to provide a cooker as opposed to a microwave oven.”

The judge said there was an issue over whether the local authority had or had not provided a fridge. “It appears that a fridge was offered but the claimant appears to have rejected it on the basis that he would need to clean it himself and might, thereby, expose himself to the risk of infection if COVID-19 viruses should be present in the fridge.

“In my judgment, this was a wholly unreasonable attitude for the claimant to take and could be described as precious, or worse than that. The fact is that the local authority has been bending over backwards to assist him and his rejection of the assistance has been, in my judgment, wholly unreasonable in that regard.”

The judge said the claimant also now had a sofa on which he could sleep and that was reasonable as a short-term measure, given the very tight time constraints, in which the local authority was required to operate by the claimant's solicitors, in responding to their letters of claim and emails.

Mr Justice Spencer concluded: “I have taken the very firm view that it is not reasonably arguable that the local authority, in this case, has acted unlawfully and, in those circumstances, this application is rejected.”

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