Here RLA trainer, housing benefit and Universal Credit expert Bill Irvine examines a recent case in which a tenant was falsely accused of being in a relationship with her landlord. The council claimed it had overpaid £17,000 in housing benefit and took the decision to prosecute the tenant in the county court for benefit fraud. A further £2,000 built up in arrears while the situation was resolved.
The tenant moved to North Wales in 2013. She secured a tenancy with a landlord close to her new job.
For the first year, she paid her rent out of her earnings and savings but was forced to stop work when her health suddenly failed.
Her landlord lived in the same terrace of houses. Over time they became friendly, with the landlord often taking her to the shops and doctor and hospital appointments etc. Another (female) friend helped out in the same way.
Housing benefit application
The tenant made an application for Housing Benefit (HB) through the council and was helped though the application by one of its housing benefit officers.
Her landlord accompanied her to the interview, during which she referred to him as a “boyfriend” and “companion”.
The officer having noted this, asked both of them to supply details of bank accounts, household bills, evidence of AST and rent payments, which were all supplied.
Housing Benefit was subsequently awarded for around 80% of the rent, with the top up being paid by her, via her bank account, to the landlord.
The landlord also provided proof he purchased the property, on a buy-to-let mortgage in 2007 and had rented the property to four previous tenants.
The rental income he received allowed him to pay his mortgage, cost of repairs, maintenance and produced a modest income to supplement his main income from working part-time as musician.
Everything operated as normal for four years, until, out of the blue, the tenant was called for an interview with two DWP officers.
The department had received an anonymous letter claiming the tenant and her landlord were living as a couple, albeit not in the same property.
She denied this, and provided proof they maintained separate households, separate friends and that the landlord was regularly away with the band some evenings and most weekends.
Despite this, DWP acting on the anonymous claims, concluded the landlord was her “partner”.
The council adopted DWP’s conclusions, carried out a “review” which in turn created the overpayment.
The overpayment letter detailed the cause of the overpayment – “Landlord partner. Not eligible”.
So, was the council right to reach these conclusions?
No – The Social Security Contributions & Benefits Act 1992 defines, at paragraph 137 (1) the term “couple” as meaning:
- “Two people who are married to, or civil partners of, each other and are members of the same household; or
- Two people who are not married to, or civil partners of, each other but are living together as a married couple”.
DWP guidance also defines two people as being in a couple if they “live together” in the “same household” and are:
- Married to each other
- Civil partners of each other
- Living together as if they’re married
None of these factors applied to the tenant’s situation
Applying the law & associated Guidance to her situation:
- The tenant was not married to the landlord
- The tenant didn’t live in the same house as the landlord
- They kept quite separate households and financial arrangements
- The landlord was a friend, companion and part-time carer but no intimate relationship existed. Her female friend provided the more personal care (bathing etc.).
- There were no children to their relationship.
The Council’s HB & Council Tax application form which the tenant completed at the start of her claim asks:
- Do you have a partner who lives with you? – to which she correctly answered no; and
- Are you, your partner or any of your or your partner’s children related to your landlord? – to which again, she answered correctly, NO.
Furthermore, in her case, the application for Housing Benefit was completed by an employee of the council who was aware of the relationship between tenant and landlord.
Applying the law to the facts:
- The council failed in its obligation to demonstrate grounds for revising the tenant’s HB claim, based on its conclusion, she was a “partner” in the legal sense, as explained earlier. Nor was she sharing a common household with the landlord, either at the start of her claim or now. He was clearly a friend, companion, carer and landlord. Unusual maybe, but still not justification for cancelling this claim retrospectively, causing a large overpayment and much anxiety and stress.
- Why would she have attended the HB office, accompanied by her landlord if her intention was to mislead or contrive a claim for HB?
The Tribunal Judge accepted the various points I had made in my written submission, that the council had failed to justify its “Revision” of the claim and agreed the suspension on the ongoing award should be lifted and paid to the tenant.
The overpayment was voided, and Housing Benefit restored from the date of cancellation, producing £2,000 arrears.
Following the Tribunal’s decision, I wrote, on then tenant’s behalf, seeking confirmation there would be no further action pursued in relation to the County Court Prosecution.
DWP, unsurprisingly, has since confirmed the case is now closed. Pity neither DWP nor the Council sought to examine the law and associated guidance before putting the disabled lady through a year of turmoil.
To contact Bill with queries on Housing Benefit (HB) or Universal Credit (UC) visit his website: www.ucadvice.co.uk