The legal case for protecting the housing rights of modern slavery victims

Analysis of legislation makes a powerful case for explicitly including victims of trafficking and modern slavery as a group with priority need for accommodation under the law.

Alex Kay is a Partner and Mary Foord-Weston is a Trainee Solicitor at Hogan Lovells, an international law firm

Alex Kay is a Partner and Mary Foord-Weston is a Trainee Solicitor at Hogan Lovells, an international law firm

22 November 2018

One of the key findings highlighted in the Underground Lives report published by Hestia is the link between modern slavery and homelessness. Data included in the report shows that over half of male victims of modern slavery slept rough after escaping their traffickers, and those sleeping rough faced a greater risk of targeting by criminal gangs.

We need to ensure that victims of modern slavery have access to accommodation, allowing them to recover from the trauma they have endured. Instability in living arrangements can hinder the recovery of victims of trafficking and slavery. It creates a barrier to accessing appropriate care and therapy, and increases the risk of being trafficked again.

However, while the Government has this year put in place guidance to housing authorities in an attempt to address the accommodation needs of victims of modern slavery, Hestia's findings show that this guidance and the way it is interpreted does not always help male victims.

In assisting Hestia with preparing their report, we have reviewed the legislation governing access to social housing for victims of human trafficking. The Housing Act 1996 states that housing authorities must secure accommodation for an applicant who is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a ‘priority need’. The Act lists a number of groups who may be found to have a priority need.

It specifically states that “a person who is vulnerable as a result of old age, mental illness or handicap or physical disability or other special reason…” will have a priority need for accommodation. This ambiguous wording is intended to provide flexibility and grant housing authorities a degree of discretion.

However, the case law suggests a need for clarity around how ‘vulnerability’ may manifest, and a potential lack of understanding of the complex mental health needs of victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.

In our legal research, we were unable to identify any case law relating to applications for social housing by male victims of trafficking. However, an analysis of case law relating to female victims revealed issues that may pose even greater barriers to male victims. For example, the fact that male victims of trafficking are less likely to access mental health services may understate their vulnerability.

The Government has produced guidance to assist. The homelessness code of guidance, updated in June 2018, contains a chapter on providing homelessness services to victims of modern slavery, which explains that housing authorities should seek advice from specialist agencies providing services to the applicant in determining whether they are ‘vulnerable’.

Section 189(2) grants the Secretary of State the power to specify further descriptions of persons as having a priority need for accommodation.

On the basis of Hestia’s Underground Lives report, and a review of the case law and guidance, we make the case for the explicit inclusion of victims of trafficking and modern slavery as a group of persons with priority need for accommodation under statute. This would go a long way to addressing the uncertainty over the interpretation of victims of modern slavery.

We believe this would help guarantee these individuals the stability required to obtain access to support services, and to recover from their experiences of exploitation.

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