Case news: Housing benefit decision addresses issue of what is a full time course of education?

29 Apr 2020 | William Ford

The background

You might be forgiven for thinking that the question of whether a course is full time or part time is fairly straightforward and does not require the involvement of lawyers. However, this is an issue that frequently arises in welfare benefits cases. The basic position is that a full time student will not be eligible for means-tested benefits (there are exceptions to this rule but it is not necessary to go into them here).  Part-time students usually remain entitled to receive means-tested benefits.

This issue came up in a recent case in which Osbornes Law were instructed. Our client, Mr Huntley, had been in receipt of Housing Benefit to assist in the payment of his rent. In September 2016 he started a course of education entitled ‘the Cornhill London Ministry Training Course’ (“the Course”), which he intended to pursue with a view to training as a Christian Minister. He attended lectures at college one day per week and was expected to do a further half day’s study per week.

At the same time as pursuing the course our client was also working at his local Church as a ministry trainee.  The Council took the view that the time spent at the local Church formed part of the Course, and that the combined hours made the client a full time student. The Course provider were aware of the placement with the client’s local Church, and students were strongly encouraged to pursue such placements. This was confirmed in materials available about the Course. If you included the total amount of time spent on the Course and the time spent on the placement as part of a course of study, then our client would be likely to be considered to have been a full time student. However, the course of study itself was only one day a week, with an extra half a day study that the student would pursue in their own time.

The case

On 31 August 2017, the London Borough of Islington (“the Council”) cancelled our client’s Housing Benefit claim, and created an overpayment, on the basis that they considered him to be a full time student. Our client appealed the housing benefit decision (without the assistance of lawyers). The case was considered on the papers by the First Tier Tribunal on 1 March 2018. The First Tier Tribunal upheld the decision of the Council.  Our client then filed an appeal (again unrepresented) and on 16 November 2018 a First Tier District Tribunal Judge set aside the decision of 1 March 2018 on the basis that there was evidence available that had not been considered by the Judge making the first decision.

Exceptional funding granted

The re-hearing was adjourned a number of times for our client to obtain legal advice. Osbornes were instructed in September 2019 and made an application for exceptional legal aid funding so that they could represent Mr Huntley before the First Tier Tribunal (legal aid is generally unavailable for appeals before the First Tier Tribunal, but funding can be granted on an exceptional basis by the Legal Aid Agency). Exceptional funding was granted to represent Mr Huntley.

Osbornes were able to obtain further evidence that indicated that whilst the placement with the local Church was complimentary to the course, it did not in fact form part of the course. The course could be completed without the need for completion of a placement with a local Church.

The Law

The definition of a “full course of study” is set out at regulation 53 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006. However, where a course does not come under specific rules concerning how the course is funded (as was the case in Mr Huntley’s appeal) case law has held that the question of whether a course counts as a ‘full time course of study” depends on a consideration of all the facts of the individual case.

The appeal was heard before a Judge on 11 March 2020 and Mr Huntley and other another witness gave evidence.

Case outcome

Judgement was given on 16 April 2020 and the First Tier Tribunal Judge concluded that the Course was not a full time course of study, and that the decision of the Council to stop Housing Benefit was incorrect.

The Judge considered the approach of Commissioner Jacobs (as he then was) in the case of CIB/1410/2005, in which work experience which was essential to, but not part of, the course was disregarded when considering whether the course was full or part time. In Mr Huntley’s case it was accepted that the training he was receiving from his apprenticeship at his local Church was not organised by the course provider or part of the course curriculum. His appeal was allowed.

The importance of legal aid

This case highlights the crucial difference that legal aid can make in cases where clients lack the resources and legal knowledge to effectively represent themselves in cases involving issues of legal complexity. It is regrettable that many people in the same position as Mr Huntley will not be able to have the benefit of legal assistance with their appeal due to the lack of availability for legal aid for such cases generally.

It also highlights the importance of legal aid lawyers using the exceptional funding regime, imperfect thought it is.

Mr Huntley was represented in his appeal by William Ford, a partner in the Housing and Social Care team.

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