Friday, 27 March 2015

Beware this tall tale

Authorities need to tread carefully when it comes to tenants’ health issues, says Debra Wilson, partner at Anthony Gold

A recent case involving a Westminster Council tenant who refused an offer of a flat because of a fear of heights should be a warning signal for how local authorities treat medical evidence in making housing decisions.

In Fadi El-Dinnaoui v Westminster Council, Mr El-Dinnaoui and his wife Hayat were first offered a flat on the 16th floor - but refused it because of Mrs El-Dinnaoui’s fear of heights.

When she went to view the property, Mrs El-Dinnaoui had a panic attack. Despite this, the council decided the property was suitable for the couple and, when they turned down the flat, argued the refusal of the 16th floor property brought its duty to house them to an end.

Dismissing medical evidence

The council’s position was that Mrs El-Dinnaoui’s fears were not serious, and it wasn’t inclined to believe her account. However, medical evidence was obtained to the effect that she had vertigo which caused panic attacks, dizziness and disorientation. The council’s review officer ignored this evidence, however, and concluded that ‘with time’ Mrs El-Dinnaoui would have settled in, because she was already living on the ninth floor of a block of flats.

When the case was heard in the county court, the judge said it ‘beggars belief’ that Mrs El-Dinnaoui was offered a flat on an even higher floor than the one she was living on, when she asked for a move because of her fears. Nevertheless, Judge Bailey considered that it was for the council to determine what enquiries were necessary, so the appeal at county court level failed. It was also brought up in the lower courts that Mrs El-Dinnaoui hadn’t been to see her GP because of any previous attacks of vertigo.

Decision overruled

However, this was overturned in the Court of Appeal on 20 March. The judge said that the council was not entitled to disregard medical opinions about the severity of the symptoms, alongside the distinctions made in relation to why Mrs El-Dinnaoui has been able to sustain living in the flat which is on the ninth floor.

There were differences between the layout of the two flats, with the one on the ninth floor having restricted views obscured by balconies, whereas the flat on the 16th floor had window views down to street level. The Court of Appeal considered that the council was wrong in dismissing the evidence without opposing medical evidence.

This case raises the question as to the extent to which local authority review officers will need to obtain medical evidence to counter medical opinion provided to them. The safest position is to obtain it. There is otherwise no means of refuting an expert’s opinion.

Debra Wilson acted for the appellant

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