Panayiotou v Waltham Forest LBC & Smith v Haringey LBC  EWCA Civ 1624. What does “significantly vulnerable” mean for the purposes of homeless assistance under section 189 Housing Act 1996? By Tim Samuel, housing barrister at Invictus Chambers.
Lord Neuberger found in Hotak v Southwark LBC  UKSC 30 ,  AC 811 that to be in priority need for homelessness assistance under section 189(1)(c) of the Housing Act 1996 a person needed to be “…”significantly more vulnerable than ordinarily vulnerable” as a result of being rendered homeless…”
The role of the decision maker was to compare the applicant with an ordinary person if made homeless but this begged the question of what ‘significantly’ meant. Did a Reviewing Officer have to define ‘significantly’ in its decisions and if so what did it mean? Various decisions in the County Court differed in approach; some determined that it meant more than minor or trivial and others that it was an ordinary word that did not need defining.
The Court of Appeal in Panayiotou v Waltham Forest  EWCA Civ 1624 reluctantly decided to try and provide guidance on the meaning of significantly.
- “I do not, therefore consider that Lord Neuberger can have used “significantly” in such a way as to introduce for the first time a quantitative threshold, particularly in the light of his warning about glossing the statute. Rather, in my opinion, he was using the adverb in a qualitative sense. In other words, the question to be asked is whether, when compared to an ordinary person if made homeless, the applicant, in consequence of a characteristic within section 189 (1) (c), would suffer or be at risk of suffering harm or detriment which the ordinary person would not suffer or be at risk of suffering such that the harm or detriment would make a noticeable difference to his ability to deal with the consequences of homelessness. To put it another way, what Lord Neuberger must have meant was that an applicant would be vulnerable if he were at risk of more harm in a significant way. Whether the test is met in relation to any given set of facts is a question of evaluative judgment for the reviewer.”
Lord Lewison acknowledged that trying to define the test would replace one imprecise formulation with another and clearly instead of significantly we now have a “noticeable difference” with the ability to deal with the consequences of homelessness.
The passage that fell fowl of the Court in the appeal was “It may well be the case that you are more vulnerable than ordinary vulnerable but I am not satisfied that you are significantly more vulnerable…” The Review officer had effectively found the applicant vulnerable but then added a quantative threshold.
The case is also notable for stating that as part of the comparative exercise the future ability of the applicant to find accommodation for themselves is relevant to whether or not they are vulnerable.
One review decision on my desk states “In this case significant must mean more than trifling and can only be ascribed as having weight and meaning, a clear difference which sets the client apart from the ordinary person” and “…there was a clear and measurable difference between him and the ordinary person”. Quantative, qualitative or a noticeable difference?