NI Court of Appeal: Prisoner fails in bid to have his housing benefit continue while imprisoned
Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal has dismissed a claim that a prisoner’s human rights were infringed when his housing benefit was denied for four months during his period of imprisonment.
The court found that there had been no discrimination between treatment of convicted and unconvicted prisoners, and that the appellant was not a “victim” under section 7 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
This appeal involved Ryan Taylor (the appellant) and the Department for Communities and the Department for Work and Pensions, as the respondents.
This case concerned the taxpayers’ funded benefit known as housing benefit, which is administered by Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).
Housing benefit is designed to help those on low income living in rented accommodation who satisfy the statutory qualifying requirements by paying their rent, rates and service charges.
In June 2019, the appellant had a tenancy at Joanmount Gardens, Belfast, where his rent was paid by housing benefit. In September, his bail was revoked and he was remanded in prison. In December, he was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment, at which point his housing benefit ended immediately.
The appellant’s sentence of imprisonment was completed on 2 April 2020. The applicant’s claim related to the four months of rental payments between December and April. It was alleged, uncertainly and without evidence, that his mother covered these expenses while he was in prison, without access to housing benefit.
The appellant’s challenge
The appellant was effectively challenging two provisions of the Housing Benefits Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, which relate to the treatment of housing benefit for people who are away from their dwelling for more than 13 weeks, due to imprisonment.
He sought a declaration that these provisions were unlawful, relying on human rights claims that they were in breach of his Convention rights under articles 8, article 1 of The First Protocol and Article 14 ECHR.
The respondents sought to have the appeal struck out, on the basis of a lack of candour, that the appellant had not established that he was a victim within section 7(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998, and that pursuing an appeal constituted a misuse of the process of the court.
In considering this case, the court examined two key issues: firstly, whether the applicant established the status of victim of a Convention Right violation under section 7 of the Human Rights Act 1998; and, if so, whether the provisions were unlawful.
In response, the respondents argued that the appellant had suffered no actual detriment. He lost his housing benefit, but the payments were covered by his mother, until his housing benefit was finally reinstated after the completion of his sentence.
They also argued that the real cause of any detriment, and any possible future detriment, was the applicant’s own re-offending, rather than the provisions themselves.
The court agreed with this view, finding that there was no evidence that the appellant was an actual victim of a Convention breach, and he suffered no loss of accommodation or financial loss.
The appellant had also not made the case that he was “an irredeemable recidivist” or “an incurable career criminal”, or that there was any real risk that he would reoffend so greatly to cause another custodial disposal. Even if this did happen, it was possible that his mother would pay his rent again.
The Article 14 ECHR issue
The applicant also claimed that there was discrimination under Article 14 ECHR on the difference in treatment between convicted prisoners and remand/unconvicted prisoners for the purpose of housing benefit.
He argued that members of both groups have the same interest in their place of residence being available to them on future release from detention; both groups “have rights to retain housing benefit while imprisoned”; and there was no lawful justification for the differential treatment.
In assessing these points, the court noted that most Article 14 prisoners’ cases concern issues such as treatment in prison or length of sentence, not rental payments for accommodation elsewhere.
The court determined that there are multiple differences between remand prisoners and sentenced prisoners. They share a “common thread of deprivation of liberty” but that alone does not diminish their differences.
Finally, the appellant argued that any difference in treatment must be justified, and that there was no justification for a difference in treatment for convicted and unconvicted prisoners for housing benefit.
The respondents argued that the eligibility for housing benefit was a determination made in response to the finite State resources in the sphere of welfare benefits, and that this often requires difficult choices and value judgments.
They argued that it was not the function of the court to usurp the role of the legislature or executive in the social and economic field, especially where the legislature had completed balancing exercise weighing the interests of taxpayers and members of the population likely to be affected by its operation.
This issue was touched on in the High Court decision, where the judge noted that “no benefit system could likely afford, or justify, paying housing benefits to subsidise indefinite or prolonged periods of absence from a home occasioned by imprisonment”.
The Court of Appeal followed this approach, noting that all prisoners are accommodated at public expense, and that there is currently a “massive unmet demand for housing in Northern Ireland generally and in Belfast particularly”.
Several thousand people are deemed homeless in Northern Ireland, and establishing a right to extended absences for housing benefit is antithetical to addressing these issues.
The rehabilitation of convicted prisoners is only one ingredient of a complex equation, and therefore justification is amply established in this case.
The court found that the appeal must be dismissed because the appellant was not a “victim” under section 7 of the Human Rights Act 1998.