Domestic abuse survivors at risk from councils’ failure to rehouse them

<span>Photograph: Pekka Sakki/REX</span>
Photograph: Pekka Sakki/REX

People fleeing domestic abuse are being put in danger by local authorities who fail to provide housing for months on end, despite a law which should prioritise them, a new study shows.

Increased legal protections are failing to prevent the “systemic” blocking of support to those fleeing abusive relationships, the report by the Public Interest Law Centrefound. The situation puts survivors of abuse at risk of further trauma or returning to an attacker, the research said.

Simon Clarke, the housing secretary, and Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, were urged to commission an independent investigation into the problem. The PILC are considering legal action against both so that they require councils to comply with their legal obligations.

Homelessness legislation was changed in July last year to give automatic priority to survivors of domestic abuse for housing. The paper suggests that the new law, introduced as part of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, is often being ignored.

Abuse survivors and frontline advocates from each of London’s 32 boroughs were interviewed for the research, which was also based on casework and litigation by the law centre.

The majority of family abuse survivors interviewed reported experiencing delays with their application for housing support, with some waiting months or even years for the outcome of their application.

Several women were never put in emergency accommodation, despite the fact that they should be prioritised for it. Some were forced to remain in abusive homes as a result, while others had to sleep on friends’ floors, in cars, and on park benches.

Izzy Mulholland, a legal caseworker at PILC and author of the report, said: “The government needs to commission an urgent investigation into the widespread failure to provide housing support to domestic abuse survivors – and provide funding and training to solve this systemic problem.”

She added: “What local authorities are doing is acting unlawfully until someone gets involved. After 10 years of austerity, and cuts to legal aid and housing lawyers, local authorities are getting away with this. Most times we make a legal challenge, the local authority backs down before it ever gets to court because they’re acting unlawfully and they know it.”

Mulholland said the situation was similar in many urban areas across the UK facing a chronic shortage of housing. Survivors outside London may find it even harder to find legal help, because of a shortage of legal aid providers.

A 40-year-old woman from south London who fled a violent husband last year described how she and her five-year-old daughter waited 10 months in a small room in a refuge before the local council finally found them a home.

She said it was only after the law centre threatened legal action that the local authority found them an infested flat with one dank mattress to share. “It was in a very filthy condition,” she said. “There was rat poo everywhere, on the table, the kitchen top. I started crying because my daughter said ‘I want to go home’.”

Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, who helped pass the legislation, said more training was needed so that people fleeing abuse were given the help they were legally entitled to.

“The gatekeepers at local councils need to be properly trained by specialist people, and they need to accept that it is the law that victims of domestic abuse have priority need,” she said.

A government spokesperson said:

“The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 gives those who are homeless as a result of domestic abuse priority need for accommodation. This is secured by the local authority and means they don’t need to remain with their abuser. Since April 2021 we have provided £250m to councils across England to make sure safe accommodation spaces, such as refuges, can provide victims with support services including counselling and therapy, children support and advocacy support to access healthcare, social workers and benefits.”