In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeal today rejected an appeal by Leicester City Council against a County Court which had refused to grant possession to the Council, even though the occupier had no tenancy and was, in strict legal terms, a trespasser.
After her husband died, Mrs S and her children had remained in their home without being granted a new tenancy by the local authority. Although the local authority’s policy made clear that it had the power to consider letting her remain there, it failed to consider exercising this power, and soon began proceedings to evict her. Whenever she asked whether she might remain in her property the local authority staunchly insisted this was impossible and asked her instead to register for rehousing, and to provide proofs of her identity. She refused to do so, and instructed Howell’s solicitors to defend possession proceedings.
In the County Court she succeeded by arguing that the Council was in breach of general principles of public law because it had ignored its own policy. The judge made clear that while Leicester were in no way bound to let her remain in her home, they had a clear duty to at least consider whether or not to do so.
On appeal the local authority raised a technical argument, described by the court as ‘ingenious’. It argued that because she had not properly completed the form to go onto the housing register, nor provided all the required forms of ID, the local authority had no technical legal power to offer her a tenancy of her own property. The Court of Appeal dismissed this argument. She had not completed her housing registration because she did not want to be rehoused. At all times the local authority had insisted that this was the single purpose of registration. Because it had misled her about the purpose of registration, it could not then turn around and blame her for following the advice it had given her, or rely on procedural errors which it had caused as a justification for evicting her.
For defendants, the case demonstrates the continued usefulness of public law defences in possession proceedings. For local authorities the case demonstrates the importance of taking care in decision-making, of remaining alive to the nuances of each individual case, and of not resorting to a mechanical ‘one size fits all’ approach. Mrs S was represented by GCN's Philip McLeish