Fitzpatrick v Sterling Housing Association Ltd

English Family Law

Fitzpatrick v Sterling Housing Association Ltd
Image: ‘Time Clock Houses’ by Sunita Khedekar

Note: To read about this case in greater depth, and with the benefit of full OSCOLA referencing, simply purchase a copy of ‘The Case Law Compendium: English & European Law’ at Amazon, Waterstones or Barnes & Noble (or go here for a full list of international outlets)


The phrase ‘family’ has seen a number of changes over the last century, and so it is that the common law of the United Kingdom is expected to accommodate cultural shifts and the cosmopolitain nature of intimate relationships, when reaching a fair and balanced decision.

In this appeal case, the relationship between a private tenant and potential successor was that of two men, and upon the death of the elder partner, it was found that despite their twenty-year history and the deeply caring bonds between them, the wording of the Housing Act 1988 prevented the surviving party from inheriting the assured tenancy, and thereby remaining in occupation of the home they had shared together.

Because of the widening of interpretation concerning the proximity required to uphold succession, it became possible to appeal to the original judgment, and while the appellant relied upon two sections of the legislation, namely (i) para.2(1) which placed importance on the spousal aspect of relationships, a section which further relied upon the assumption that the two parties were of opposite genders, and (ii) para.3, which extended the right to succeed where those in occupancy at the time of the other’s death could show such living arrangements over a minimum two-year period, while under the scope of ‘family’.

The issue presented to the judges was not one of spousal qualification, but rather agreement that despite the non-traditional relationship between the two men, there did exist an intimacy that by all accounts, could be construed as familial. By applying a number of past and recent precedents, it fell to the five judges to subjectively determine if the statute prescribed by Parliament, contained within it, an ability to embrace the post-modern image of the family unit, without the need for statutory review.

In its conclusion, and somewhat expectedly, there was a fine division of judicial opinion that thankfully provided grace to the appellant, and allowed him to enjoy the home shared with his partner in the years before and leading up to, his passing.

Key Citations

“[F]or the purposes of this Act, two people of the same sex can be regarded as having established membership of a family, one of the most significant of human relationships which both gives benefits and imposes obligations.”

“[L]egislation would fail to cover the whole of the target intended to be protected if family were given a narrow or rigid meaning. Such a meaning would fail to reflect the diverse ways people, in a multi-cultural society, now live together in family units.”

“[T]here can be no rational or other basis on which the like conclusion can be witheld from a similarly stable and permanent sexual relationship between two men or between two women.”

“Contrary to what seems implicit in this form of question, the expression family does not have a single, readily recognisable meaning.”

“[T]he morality of a lawful relationship is not now regarded as relevant when the court is deciding whether an individual qualifies for protection under the Rent Acts.”

“I do not accept the argument that the inclusion of a tenant’s homosexual partner within the ranks of persons eligible to qualify as member of his family is a step which should be left to Parliament.”

“The elements of free mutual choice of a close intimate relationship and the voluntary determination to spend one’s life with another is one form of a family bond.”

“The formal bond of marriage is now far from being a significant criterion for the existence of a family unit.”

“It would be wrong to regard the present case as one about the rights of homosexuals. It is simply a matter of the application of ordinary language to this particular statutory provision in the light of current social conditions”

“It does not seem to me that the recognition that a person living together with another in a homosexual relationship may qualify as a member of the other’s family is likely to lead to any significant uncertainties in the application of the statutory provision.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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