Council refused to pay family’s £5,000 housing benefit after home burned down

News

A family of seven who were made homeless due to a fire at their family home will get the £5,000 they lost in housing benefit after a judge ordered a city council to put things right.

Sam Steinhart, his wife and five children were rendered homeless in June 2021 when the blaze gutted their home in Broughton, Greater Manchester.

The family initially went to stay with close relatives before being rehomed, but the Steinharts, who had been in receipt of housing benefit, had it stopped by Salford City Council.

Cash was deducted from Mr Steinhart’s wages under an attachment of earnings arrangement to collect what the city council claimed was overpaid benefit.

Yesterday, Independent councillor for the Kersal and Broughton Park ward Andrew Walters, acting as an advocate for Mr Steinhart against the wishes of Salford city council on which he serves, successfully appealed against the stopping of the benefit at a social security appeal tribunal at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre.

The family should not have been told by Salford city council to apply for the housing element of Universal Credit (as was the case) which was significantly less than housing benefit, the tribunal ruled.

They had “lost pretty much everything” in the fire which also damaged several neighbouring homes,Manchester Evening News reports.

Judge Jenny Lester-Ashworth ruled in favour of Mr Steinhart in the absence of the Salford city council presenting officer who could not be reached on the phone by the court.

She told Mr Steinhart: “The council was wrong to end your entitlement to housing benefit and should’ve made a decision which would’ve been a closed period supersession [a temporary change in benefit for a fixed period after which entitlement to benefit would restart].”

Judge Lester-Ashworth said that because of the fire on June 27, 2021 the family was required to vacate the property where rent was being paid.

“Your liability for the new property did not start until July 11 2021,” she said.

“The only change in circumstance was a change of address following the fire. I am satisfied that the council should have applied a closed period supersession to your claims period from June 28 to July 10. Your housing benefit claim should not have been permanently closed.

“You should not have been directed to apply for the housing element of Universal Credit.”

She said that the council has accepted that closed period supersessions can apply in housing benefit cases but the authority asserted in its response to the appeal that such periods are limited to changes of circumstances arising from fluctuating or temporary income changes.

“The case law does not expressly limit closed period supersessions in this way,” she said. “And I have not identified any good reason to support such a restrictive approach.

“A presenting officer was directed to attend the hearing but did not do so. The council was notified of the hearing on October 18 2021.

“On the day of the hearing, a presenting officer contacted the tribunal service to request an adjournment as she had only returned from annual leave on November 8 and was unable to attend. I declined the adjournment which was opposed by the appellant.”

Judge Lester-Ashworth said that the presenting officer was invited to participate by telephone and the tribunal service attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact her twice between 2pm and 2.15pm yesterday (November 8) on the telephone number provided.

“I was satisfied that it was just and fair to decide this appeal in the respondent’s absence.”

After the hearing, Coun Walters told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “I’m obviously delighted, and of course absolutely thrilled for my constituent [at the outcome].

“After the nightmare he has experienced with his house being burned down, losing his possessions, living with his family in temporary accommodation, and with inflation at over 10 per cent and, the cost-of-living crisis, having had to find an extra five thousand pounds to pay rent that the tribunal today has ruled should have been paid by the council.

“And indeed having had an attachment of earnings order sent to his employer to collect an alleged overpayment that this tribunal today has determined did not occur, would have put a strain on anyone.

“I was extremely impressed by the judge who had clearly made an effort to familiarise herself with the case and appropriate legislation and case law, ensuring a fair and correct decision could be made quickly.

“It was a shame that Salford city council was unable to send a presenting officer, but the judge made the correct decision in refusing an adjournment on that basis.

“It is my fervent hope that the council continues to make only correct decisions, so I will not need to attend a tribunal again in this capacity. But I will not allow my constituents to suffer injustice because they are unable to pay for representation.”