You are here

Domestic violence includes psychological abuse, Supreme Court rules

26 January 2011

The Supreme Court has widened the term ‘domestic violence’ in homelessness cases to include psychological abuse.

Under section 177(1) of the Housing Act 1996, victims of domestic violence are automatically treated as homeless.

The case involved a woman who left her council house, taking her children with her. Hounslow Council refused to treat her as homeless because she had not suffered physical violence or threats of physical violence.

She told housing officers she was worried her husband was having an affair and was scared he would hit her if she confronted him. She also complained that he had denied her money for housekeeping.

Giving the leading judgment in Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow [2011] UKSC 3, Lady Hale said ‘violence’ for the purposes of section 177(1) should include locking someone in the house, depriving them of food or the money to buy food.

Lady Hale said that by the time of the 1996 Act, understanding of domestic violence had “moved on from a narrow focus upon battered wives and physical contact”.

She said there was a “consciousness of the need to align housing, homelessness and family law remedies for victims of domestic violence”.

Under part IV of the Family Law Act 1996, the definition of domestic violence extended beyond physical assaults to “any form of physical, sexual or psychological molestation or harassment which has a serious detrimental effect upon the health and well-being of the victim”.

Lady Hale said ‘violence’ was a similar word to ‘family’. She went on: “It is not a term of art. It is capable of bearing several meanings and applying to many different types of behaviour. These can change and develop over time

“In this case the purpose is to ensure that a person is not obliged to remain living in a home where she, her children or other members of her household are at risk of harm.

“A further purpose is that the victim of domestic violence has a realchoice between remaining in her home and seeking protection from the criminal or civil law and leaving to begin a new life elsewhere.”

Lady Hale said the purpose of the legislation would be achieved if ‘domestic violence’ was interpreted in the same way as the president of the Family Division in his 2009 practice direction on residence and contact orders.

“This includes threatening or intimidating behaviour and any other form of abuse which, directly or indirectly, may give rise to the risk of harm.”

While accepting that an expanded definition might be “setting the threshold too low”, Lady Hale said the president of the Family Division’s definition dealt separately with actual physical violence, putting a person in fear of such violence and other types of harmful behaviour.

She allowed the appeal and remitted the case to the council. Lords Hope, Walker and Rodger agreed.

Lord Brown confessed to “doubts and hesitation”, particularly as giving domestic violence the wider meaning would involve overturning two “clear and unanimous” decisions of the Court of Appeal, in this case and in Danesh v Kensington and Chelsea [2007] 1 WLR.

“With the best will in the world I find it difficult to accept that there is quite the same obvious urgency in rehousing those subject to psychological abuse, let alone that it will be possible to identify this substantially wider class of prospective victims, however precisely they may be defined, with anything like the same ease.”

However, he did not feel “sufficiently strongly” to dissent.

Categorised in:

Education & Training Divorce Costs