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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

27 JAN 2011

Supreme Court widens definition of 'domestic violence'

By Hugh Logue, Newswatch Editor

Supreme CourtThe Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that ‘domestic violence' in homelessness cases includes psychological as well as physical abuse.

The ruling came in the case of Yemshaw (Appellant) v London Borough of Hounslow (Respondent) [2011] UKSC 3, in which a woman left the matrimonial home with her two young children and sought the help of the local housing authority. In interviews with housing officers, she complained of her husband's behaviour, which included shouting in front of the children, and stated that she was scared that if she confronted him he might hit her. The officers decided that she was not homeless as her husband had never actually hit her or threatened to do so.

On a review, the panel noted that the root cause of her homelessness was not that she had fled after a domestic incident and believed the probability of domestic violence to be low. They concluded that it was reasonable for her to continue to occupy the matrimonial home.

Section 177(1) of Housing Act 1996 states that it is not reasonable for a person to continue to occupy accommodation if it is probable that this will lead to domestic violence or other violence against him or other members of his household. The effect of section 177(1) is that a person who is at risk of the domestic violence is automatically homeless, however reasonable it might be in other respects for that person  to remain in the accommodation. Questions of local housing conditions or shortages do not come into it. Another important consequence of section 177(1) is that the person cannot be treated as intentionally homeless.

However, in the case of Danesh v Kensington and Chelsea Royal London Borough Council [2006] EWCA Civ 1404, [2007] 1 WLR 69, the Court of Appeal held that "violence" must involve some sort of physical contact, and the word "violence" on its own did not include threats of violence or acts or gestures, which lead someone to fear physical violence.

The Supreme Court's decision yesterday aligns housing and homelessness law with family law, which already recognises psychological domestic violence. Lady Hale, who gave the leading judgment, said that the decision ensures that victims do not have to stay in homes where they "are at risk of harm" and that they have "a real choice between remaining in [their] home and seeking protection from the criminal or civil law and leaving to begin a new life elsewhere."

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