Abdullah v City of Westminster  EWCA Civ 1566 is not a new case. In fact it is two years old, but the transcript of the Court of Appeal judgement has only just come out (and it isn’t on Bailii). So we’ll do a brief note.
The case was a second appeal from a s.204 appeal to a Circuit judge. There has indeed been a previous appeal, in which HHJ Collins had quashed a review decision and required a fresh decision. This appeal was from the second decision.
Mrs Abdullah was a refugee from Yemen. She was accommodated in Barnet but moved to Westminster (with Barnet’s encouragement) as there was a Yemenite community in Westminster, including relatives, who could support her with her four children. She applied as homeless to Westminster.
Westminster accepted a duty and offered her accommodation in Barking. The review was of the suitability of the accommodation. Mrs Abdullah made submissions on her reasons for needing to live in Westminster. The first review found that the offered accommodation was suitable. It was overturned on appeal on the basis that
it had missed the real point, which was not that she would very much like to live in Westminster, […] it was that she had a real need to be in Westminster because only in Westminster could she get support from friends and relatives and, accordingly, only by putting her in Westminster could the council comply with its legal duty to provide her with suitable accommodation.
The second review decision also found that the accommodation in Barking was suitable. The question was whether this time the review officer had properly tackled the reason for Mrs Abdullah’s need to live in Westminster.
Mrs Abdullah argued that:
1. the review officer had failed to pay proper attention to what HHJ Collins had said in the first appeal on the reasons for needing to live in Westminster.
2. the review officer placed undue emphasis on flawed information from Social Services.
3. the review officer did not place the correct emphasis on available medical evidence, which did not support his conclusion.
On 1. Jacob LJ found that HHJ Collins was not making any findings of fact and that was not his function. His comments were not, therefore, binding on the reviewer as a finding of fact.
On 2. Jacob LJ found that the information from Social Services was enough to support the review officer’s view, although there was clearly an issue in dispute about the extent of the support network in Westminster, this was not a matter for the Court to decide.
On 3. Jacob LJ found that the issue the review officer was to address was whether this was a matter of need rather than of ‘mere strong convenience’. While it could not be said that the review officer’s summary was entirely fair:
bearing in mind that this is not a legal document to be construed like a will or a statute, there is enough, and only just, to justify the statement. What is really being said, if one summarises the medical material overall, is that it would be much, much, much better for this lady to be in Westminster, but not quite that she cannot cope without it.
Wilson LJ had concerns with the review, in particular in the ease with which the 10 letters by Mrs Abdullah’s family and friends on the support she was receiving were set aside as against 2 short notes from social services, and in the handling of the medical evidence. He further identified two sentences that HHJ Collins had specifically said had missed the point in the first review which had been repeated verbatim. However:
Reviewing officers are not judges and have no legal training. They are decision makers, often overworked. This reviewing officer was at the time the only officer conducting reviews under section 202 of the Act of 1996 for the whole of the City of Westminster. Reviews of reviewing officers, when subject to appeal to the county court under section 204 of the Act, are not to be subject to the degree of analysis apt to an appeal to this court from a judgment of a professional judge; and the appeal to the circuit judge is only on a point of law. That said, as I am sure the reviewing officer would in retrospect accept, this second review was hardly his finest hour.
There was enough in the review to indicate that the review officer had identified the appellants case and it was ‘just about’ open to him to conclude as he did on the available evidence.
Arden LJ concurred. On the specific issue of the weight to be accorded to the judgment of HHJ Collins on the first review in the second review, she held:
There would still have to be a second review; and it would be inconsistent with that review, being a fresh review […] for the officer dealing with the second review to do so on the basis of any particular disposition. He had to look at the matter afresh. Of course he would pay respect, and should pay respect, to what the judge had said and take account of his judgment, but there was no question of deference or giving what the judge had said any particular weight which would alter the normal method of review.
Further, in regard to the letters from friends and family, the review officer was entitled to decide what weight to give the letters and the wieght he had given them was not untenable in the circumstances.