Open doors to housing action

WRITS

Headline writers in the national tabloid press had a field day after the recent Court of Appeal ruling that two homeless HIV victims, one Italian the other Spanish, are entitled to council housing in the UK.

However, Saimo Chahal, a partner at London firm Bindman & Partners who represented one of the men, believes the reaction of the right wing media trivialised an important legal ruling.

She said the case clarified questions over the rights of EU nationals to local authority housing in the UK, a fact lost on many because of the emotive media reporting. And, she added, some of the post-judgment hype, based on official Government comment, was in fact ill-founded.

The ruling that Westminster City Council acted unlawfully when it refused accommodation to Chahal's client, 36-year-old Italian Gaudenzio Castelli, and Spaniard Jose Tristan-Garcia, 33, on the basis that they were EU immigrants with no realistic prospect of finding work, was branded by the media as "a blow to the war on foreign scroungers".

The Department of Environment line was that a perceived "gap" in legislation had paved the way for the ruling and that it would be closed by the Housing Bill, expected to become law next autumn.

But Chahal, head of Bindmans housing litigation department, said: "It is by no means cut and dried that the Housing Bill will have the affect predicted.

"Any regulations the Secretary of State makes in relation to European nationals will have to comply with European law and will be subject to challenge if they do not.

"The Bill contains no definition of who is to be excluded from access to council housing. It is left to the Secretary of State to make regulations in this respect. It seems to me quite wrong it is not going to be fully debated in Parliament. It should be subject to the closest scrutiny by Parliament and not left to the Secretary of State."

The case itself was by no means straight forward and demanded a thorough examination of a variety of laws. Housing, social security, immigration and Euro law were put under the microscope in the action, which has paved the way for other similar claims – Chahal has two more on her files and around 30 more are known to be waiting in the wings.

The weight of adverse media attention and a failure to obtain anonymity orders for the men at the centre of the action added to the difficulties.

"The case called for support of a client who was extremely upset and depressed by vicious press reports and he felt he could not go on with the case as his privacy had been completely invaded," said Chahal. "My first task was to reassure him and get him to more suitable accommodation away from the glare of publicity."

Chahal praised the teamwork among professionals and interested non-legal organisations as a contributory factor in achieving all that was necessary in the run up to the court action. She also welcomed the involvement of the Terence Higgins Trust, which initially referred Castelli to her, and the Immunity Legal Centre, which represented Tristan-Garcia.