Fitzpatrick v Sterling Housing Association Ltd (1999)

English Family Law

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

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.