A recent High Court decision has shed light on the scope of a local authority’s duty to house homeless individuals in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
In an application for interim relief in R (on the application of Escott) v Chichester District Council  5 WLUK 14, Spencer J refused to order a local authority to provide furniture and white goods in unfurnished self-contained accommodation provided to a homeless individual during the coronavirus pandemic.
The claimant had been an itinerant member of the traveller community, and had mental health and substance abuse issues. In 2019 he required intensive care in hospital after being assaulted. He contracted sepsis and aspirational pneumonia, requiring ongoing medication.
Following the implementation of lockdown, the local authority offered the claimant shared hostel-style accommodation, in accordance with its duty to homeless individuals under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996.
The claimant requested a review of this accommodation offer, on the basis that his medical history made him extremely vulnerable to coronavirus and the other residents were not practicing social distancing.
He subsequently rejected four other accommodation types offered by the local authority, but accepted an offer of an unfurnished flat that was available, and moved in. A local authority officer personally provided a mattress and a microwave.
The claimant’s solicitors then requested furniture and white goods for the unfurnished flat, on the basis that the claimant could not shield himself indoors if he had no cooking or food storage facilities. This was not provided.
The claimant applied for interim relief, submitting that there was a strong prima facie case that the local authority had acted unlawfully by failing to provide suitable accommodation as required by s.188(1) and s.206(1) of the 1996 Act, and that the balance of convenience favoured ordering the local authority to provide the requested items.
No general duty to provide furniture
Spencer J found that there was a high bar when challenging local authority decisions about what was required in a given situation (R v Hillingdon LBC Ex p. Puhlhofer  AC 484 and Codona v Mid-Bedfordshire DC  EWCA Civ 925), especially in the context of lockdown.
There was no general duty to provide furniture. Local authorities were frequently found to have complied with their housing duties by providing unfurnished accommodation, and the coronavirus pandemic did not change that.
Position not altered by claimant’s particular vulnerabilities
Neither did the nature of the local authority’s duty alter as a result of the claimant’s particular vulnerabilities in this case. The claimant’s need not just for self-isolation, but for shielding from all contact with others, had to be balanced against the heightened requirement during the coronavirus pandemic for the local authority to fulfil its duty to other rough sleepers, in a situation where accommodation was scarce and the local authority’s resources were stretched.
Further, Spencer J found that it was significant that the claimant had originally accepted the unfurnished flat without any additional items having been provided, that there was a microwave in the flat that could be used to cook food, and that he had rejected an offered fridge because he would have had to disinfect it himself, which Spencer J found was an unreasonable attitude in the circumstances.
The judgment suggests that the courts may be willing to afford local authorities a relatively high degree of flexibility with regards to such decisions during the coronavirus pandemic, in particular where local authorities are seeking to balance competing demands in allocating their resources.