Security of tenure: almshouses

Thursday 2 February 2017

Watts v Stewart and others [2016] EWCA Civ 1247, 8 December 2016

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Watts v Stewart and others [2016] EWCA Civ 1247, 8 December 2016

The respondents were trustees of the Ashtead United Charity: a charitable trust that provided almshouse accommodation for the benefit, principally, of ‘poor single women of not less than 50 years of age who are inhabitants of the area of the ancient parish of Ashtead with a preference for such women who have been employed in domestic service.’ The appellant Mrs Watts had occupied one such almshouse since 2004 as the beneficiary of the charity.

On 12 August 2014, against a backdrop of anti-social behaviour on the part of Mrs Watts, the trustees served a notice to quit and subsequently commenced possession proceedings. The Circuit Judge at first instance, over the course of several hearings, held that as an appointee made by the trustees as a beneficiary of the charities, Mrs Watts was a licensee. She had no public law or Article 8/Article 14 ECHR defence available to her. And the trustees in seeking her eviction were not acting in breach of their fiduciary duties since no fiduciary duty was owed to the object of a charity. Accordingly she granted them possession.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Mrs Watt’s appeal. The judge was correct to find that Mrs Watts was a licensee and not a tenant since she did not have the right to exclusive occupation of the property. There is a legal distinction between a legal right of exclusive possession and a personal right of exclusive occupation. Mrs Watts did not have the former, and the fact that the agreement which granted her the right to occupy the property used the words tenancy and rent did not alter this conclusion. Neither did the fact that Mrs Watts was occupying the property in the capacity of a beneficiary under a trust. Such a person will not automatically be regarded as a tenant. Their legal status will depend on the terms and conditions on which the occupation was permitted. The case of Gray v Taylor [1998] 1 WLR 1093  (in which it was suggested that a person occupying property as a beneficiary of a trust would not be a tenant) was correctly decided on its facts.

The Court went on to consider whether the fact that almshouses were excluded from security of tenure under Housing Act 1985 resulted in unlawful discrimination contrary to Articles 8 and 14 ECHR. The court observed that whether Article 8 was engaged in such circumstances (i.e. where the landlord was not a public body) was unclear on the authorities. However, proceeding on the assumption that Article 8 was engaged, the court was inclined not to accept that an occupier of an almshouse had an ‘other status’ for the purposes of Article 14. But it was not necessary to decide the issue as, in any event, the exclusion of this class of occupier from the statutory regime for security of tenure was justified as it secured a fair balance between the interests of charities and current and future almspersons.

A further argument, relating to whether the proceedings were ‘charity proceedings’ within the meaning of s115(8) Charities Act 2011 and whether authorisation for them was required from the Charity Commission or a Chancery High Court judge, was also dismissed.

Click here for the judgment.

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