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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Homelessness: The Crime against Humanity that the UK Legal System Forgot

When considering human rights, it is often easy to overlook domestic breach of rights in favour of topical overseas issues; however, this only enables the government, judiciary and the public to discredit poverty and more specifically homelessness in the UK. Is it not one of the most basic human rights to have a roof over your head? No longer should homeless suffer insufficient legal protection. It is shocking to consider that over 300,000 people in the UK ‘sleep rough’[1] , with the Capital topping the charts despite its reputation as the hub for UK innovation and social progression. The socioeconomic factors creating these statistics are even more dangerous to the ‘hidden homeless’ in the UK; those who fail to register under the Governmental radar as needing provisions, and are left to sleep rough or are dependent on the goodwill of others, are placed in a vulnerable position. The relevance of this issue, particularly at this time of year, is undeniable as "we desperately need action now to change tomorrow for the hundreds of thousands whose lives will be blighted by homelessness this winter."[2] It is easy to forget the dangers of the cold and the fatalities that occur because of lack of provisions and shelter. One of the main restrictions to the development of homeless provisions is the widely used argument that homelessness is simply a feature of every society. However, in the UK, a country which prides itself on the merits of its legal system, the issue of homelessness may be due to a mixture of miscommunication, lack of awareness and social ignorance. This article will raise awareness of how little the legal system is currently utilising its power to promote social change with regard to homelessness and will hopefully provide answers as to how this process can be accelerated by the public.

In terms of legislation, ‘The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017’ was a step forward in that, now, homeless people must be given the opportunity to receive support and relief from their local council. The emphasis here is on the word ‘all’ as the previous ‘Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977’ operated on the basis of ‘priority need’ which denied most single people the right to a home. This has been partly amended by the 2017 Act, however, the statistics do still show that the provisions and amendments have not been taken far enough to tackle this issue fully, with the Act serving more the superficial needs of the government. However, this small step may perhaps be due to other priorities by the legislative bodies or the bodies may simply feel that this Act was sufficient. A significant part of the Act is that councils must try and promote preventive measures to reduce the number of homeless people. However, this principle does not seem to have followed through, as there is little evidence of an action plan to combat homelessness in the UK, through promoting a preventative procedure or otherwise. In fact, the statistic that ‘one in 200 people in the UK are homeless’ and the number of people that can be observed sleeping rough is evidence enough to suggest that despite this legislation, homelessness is still a major issue.

In looking for blame, we could point to the judiciary, the government, councils and the ordinary people that discredit the severity of homelessness. However, it must be acknowledged that some people are simply burdened with other factors that make it hard for them to accept help. Generally, people are advised to restrain from donating money directly to homeless people on the streets. This only serves to remove guilt as people feel that they are leaving the aid in the capable hands of governmental organisations. However, the lack of awareness with regards to these organisations seems counterproductive. Is it enough to assume that the local council will provide for people on the streets? The 2017 Act is a step forward, but until the number of homeless people is reduced, can we really be assured that it serves to do anything other than facilitate people in feeling less guilty for not helping the homeless?

In this article, I will address three measures which may be beneficial in improving the position of the homeless and those in poverty around the UK through the utilisation of the legal system. These are: firstly, raising awareness of legal pro bono work, which provide knowledge to the homeless about their rights in order to to avoid exploitation by organisations to which they are potentially vulnerable. Secondly, introducing more effective legislation and judgements to provide for victims of homelessness and finally, accepting that as a nation we are not doing enough to prevent homelessness or provide for those who are in a state of poverty. This third point is arguably the most important, as without acceptance, there will never be change.

Firstly, it is vital to bring to light the merits of pro-bono works which deal with the advocation of rights and provide free legal advice. This work should be actively encouraged and further awareness of them should be raised to in turn increase their donations. One specific charity, ‘Shelter[3]’, provide representation and advocacy for the homeless by helping support people in legal areas such as tenancy deposits, repossession and eviction. This advice is invaluable not only to those sleeping rough, but also to those in danger of becoming homeless. This is therefore both a preventative measure and one providing relief. It is often all too easy for people to forget they possess rights- a sense of identity is lost when people lose their homes, as in a world of materialism, things and especially houses become extensions of people themselves. Similarly, being denied this basic human right is bound to make anyone feel less than human. It is for this reason that non-profit organisations such as ‘Shelter’ should receive more donations because to people facing this level of hardship in a system constantly working against them, it surely must seem a blessing to have someone working in their favour for once.

The value of legal support and assistance is often understated, yet it is vital to those on the street. However, alarmingly, there have been “advice deserts”[4] in the area of housing, meaning that there are not enough legal aid lawyers due to monetary cuts in the ‘Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012’. This has resulted in an ‘18% decline in the number of challenges brought’ before court as there are a lack of lawyers bringing these cases forward, due to pay rises not in line with inflation. Therefore, promotion of these charities is imperative, because without these lawyers, no matter which legal provisions are in place, there will be no-one to fight for those in danger of becoming homeless. It is vital that organisations like ‘Shelter’ gain more awareness and funding because the legal advice given is often a long-term solution for people rather than a short-term relief or fix. Solving legal issues can help people to be in a better position in the future as it focuses on sustainability of rights and assets. Often preventative services can help people to avoid homelessness in the first place, which is obviously the ideal.

Secondly, new better legislation is vital to solving this problem. The new ‘Homelessness Reduction Act’ 2017 is widely considered a step forward in that people in different situations could apply for housing support in a system which widely discriminates against younger, single people, in favour of people with dependents. This is incredibly significant as it added to and amended the ‘Housing Act 1996’ to allow for increased accessibility of accommodation for the homeless under section 6, as it is stated to be ‘a function of the authority to secure that accommodation is available for the occupation of a person.’[5] The 2017 Act also reduces the significance that ‘priority need’ has in the process of housing the homeless. However, it must be noted that this is only in practice as although eligible tenants can have at least six months of housing and accommodation, there is still an evident priority need basis which, although clearly fair, overlooks and discredits the need of a large proportion of homeless people. In this way, the law has still not gone far enough as there is still the most emphasis on immediate relief rather than raising awareness and providing remedial long-term action.

The case of WB and W District Council [6] which was decided in 2018 serves to prove that more amendments are required to take the 1996 Act further. This case is very heavily based on human rights issues, as when a homeless woman applied for housing support, she was turned away by her local council on the basis that she had a mental illness. The reasoning behind this was that she was unable to properly apply due to her disability and would not be able to fulfil the rights of a tenant. The fact that she was not considered priority need is an even more shocking revelation as because of her disability, she would be even more vulnerable on the street than she would have been without the disability. The fact that her mental health issues were used as a basis not to provide the kind of support exemplified in the 2017 Act only serves to highlight how much further legislation needs to develop in order to be sufficient in relation to the preservation of human rights. When the aforementioned case reached the Court of Appeal, it was found that Article 3 of the European Court of Human Rights (degrading treatment) was not breached due to the existence of the provisions in the 2017 Housing Act. It was provided that a homeless person with a mental illness can apply for housing support, however, cannot be guaranteed it unless they prove to be capable of upholding a tenancy. As this case was decided in 2018, it can be proved that even with the existence of the Homelessness Reduction Act, councils are simply utilising legislation to absolve themselves of responsibility. This new Act therefore seems more superficial and is being used, if anything, to marginalize the homeless further. There should be further legislation or amendments to make housing support more accessible for everyone, despite priority need, mental capacity and other factors which are not relevant as help and support should be provided regardless of external factors.

Thirdly, the most central mechanism to change in this area is acceptance. Within the law, it is clear that no change comes without the acceptance of issues related to legislation and promotion of change. This is especially prevalent in a legal system which so readily evolves in line with social progression. Therefore, to further promote sufficient legislation and to support the growth of housing advice lawyers, it must be accepted that the UK and more specifically, the legal system is not doing enough to deal with the staggering statistics and the harsh decisions of the judiciary in these matters. The UK has a clear political focus on foreign policy, however, this laissez-faire attitude to domestic issues can no longer be accepted. The system allows so many people to be forgotten which contravenes so many of the basic human rights that the UK supposedly advocates for citizens abroad.

Legal help is a vital part of the solution to homelessness as this arguably more effective preventative solution provides not only for ‘the hidden homeless’, but also for those who are in danger of becoming homeless (the threatened homeless). Therefore, in addition to providing immediate relief for the homeless on the streets, the state should acknowledge the vicious cycle of homelessness and lay down a solid foundation of legal advocacy and support. Although it is easy forget those on the streets, especially during the cold dark days leading to Christmas, it is vital to accept that the UK does have a problem and that this problem can be eased or eradicated through the proper utilisation of the legal sector.

Emma Robson

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

29 December 2018


[1]P Butler, ‘One in every 200 people in UK are homeless, according to Shelter’ The Guardian (8 November 2017)

[2] H Richardson, ‘At least 320,000 people homeless in Britain', BBC News (22 November 2018)


[4] O Bowcott, ‘Thousands left homeless by shortage of legal aid lawyers, say charities’, The Guardian, (18 December 2016)

[5] Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 s 6 (3)

[6] [2018] EWCA Civ 928

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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