The Court of Appeal has quashed a council decision that said a young man with mental health problems and at risk of self-harming and suicide was not in priority need for housing when facing homelessness.
London law firm Osbornes Law, who acted for Troy Guiste, says the case throws the spotlight on the London Borough of Lambeth and other councils outsourcing decision-making and medical opinions relating to homelessness.
The case also provides some much needed clarification in relation to the test for priority need on grounds of vulnerability.
Mr Guiste, 23, faced the prospect of homelessness when eviction proceedings were brought against his mother. He applied as homeless to Lambeth who provided emergency accommodation pending a decision.
The council’s original decision was that Mr Guiste was homeless and eligible for assistance, but that he was not in priority need for accommodation because he was “not significantly more vulnerable when compared to an ordinary person when homeless”.
This was upheld on review by RMG Limited, to which Lambeth outsources such cases, and that decision was upheld on appeal to the county court.
This was despite expert evidence obtained by Osbornes Law from Dr Judith Freedman, whom the Court of Appeal called Mr Guiste’s “distinguished consultant psychiatrist”, that his symptoms would be at risk of worsening if he were made homeless, and he would particularly “be at risk for command hallucinations, demanding that he self-harm and/or hang himself”.
Giving the unanimous ruling of the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Henderson found that the RMG review officer, Dorothy Ubiam, failed to explain why she had disregarded this evidence, instead preferring evidence from psychiatrists instructed by NowMedical who were “less highly qualified” than Dr Freedman and, more importantly, had never met or interviewed Mr Guiste.
The judge said: “Ms Ubiam appears to have accepted that ‘further suicidality in response to various life stressors’ was not unlikely, which on the face of it appears to be consistent with Dr Freedman’s own prognosis. In the very next sentence, however, Ms Ubiam said she thought there was no current evidence to indicate that Mr Guiste would experience harm or deterioration as a result of homelessness.”
“That appears to amount to a rejection of Dr Freedman’s firmly stated opinion to the contrary, but I am unable to find any clear indication why Ms Ubiam took this view, especially as she appeared to accept the likelihood of further suicidality.”
The court ordered that a new review decision is reached by a different and “experienced” review officer.
The court also rejected Lambeth’s argument that the test for priority need should include examining whether the particular circumstances of Mr Guiste would affect his functionality so as to make a noticeable difference to his ability to deal with the consequences of being homeless.
This would “import an extra layer of complexity into a test which is already far from simple to expound”, Henderson LJ said.
Like many other councils, Lambeth has outsourced the provision of medical advice in housing cases to NowMedical Limited. Two of its psychiatric advisers prepared reports on Mr Guiste’s application but neither interviewed nor examined him, despite Osbornes’ request that they do so.
The court noted that this was NowMedical’s standard practice. As well as not meeting Mr Guiste, NowMedical’s advisers also declined an invitation from Osbornes Law to discuss his case with Dr Freedman.
Mr Guiste’s solicitor, Edward Taylor of Osbornes Law, says: “It is disappointing and worrying that we have had to fight so hard just to ensure that the clear psychiatric evidence in this case is properly considered. Troy is an incredibly vulnerable young man who risks being cut adrift by society if his need to be housed is not treated as a priority.
“I urge councils to think seriously before using public funds to instruct NowMedical where sufficient medical advice is already available to the housing officer. It represents a false economy instructing NowMedical where there is already an informed opinion from someone who has examined the applicant.
“I hope that the judgment sends a strong message to councils to reach fair and rational decisions in future, which would achieve justice without expensive and time-consuming court proceedings.”
Osbornes Law instructed Counsel Martin Westgate QC and David Cowan of Doughty Street Chambers to represent Mr Guiste.