• Robert Spicer

Homelessness not a matter of necessity: Lord Denning in London Borough of Southwark v Williams

Hunger and homelessness: London Borough of Southwark v Williams (1971)

Homeless families in London squatted in empty houses in Southwark. The local authority applied for immediate possession of the houses. The families pleaded necessity. The court (Lord Denning) made the following points:

  • Homelessness did not amount to necessity.

  • The doctrine of necessity was confined within very narrow limits, for example urgent and transient situations of great and imminent danger to life in which the law permitted some encroachment on private property.

  • If hunger were to be allowed as an excuse for stealing, it would open a way through which all kinds of disorder and lawlessness would pass. If homelessness were admitted as a defence to trespass, no-one’s home could be safe. The courts must, for the sake of law and order, take a firm stand. They must refuse to admit the pleas of necessity to the hungry and the homeless and trust that their distress will be relieved by the charitable and the good.

Thus the rights of the homeless depend, as a matter of law, on charity.

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