Under Council Tax law, a person is classed as living at an address if it is their ‘sole or main residence’. If a person has only one address, that address is their sole residence. However, if he or she spends time at more than one address, we have to decide which one is their main residence.
Unfortunately, the law does not explain what ‘main residence’ means. However, a number of cases have been before the High Court and the judges’ decisions in those cases have given us some guidelines to follow. Details of some of these cases are given below.
A person does not necessarily have to be physically present at an address all the time for it to be their main residence. We have to look into the circumstances at each address. The things we have to take into account are:
- whether they physically reside at each address;
- the reasons why they have two addresses;
- where their wife, husband or partner lives, if they have one;
- where their children live, if they have any;
- their legal tie to each address;
- where they keep most of their belongings;
- whether they intend to return to one address eventually;
- whether anything prevents them from returning whenever they want to;
- which address seems to be their most settled home.
We must also look at the amount of time they spend at each address, but this is not the most important thing.
Sole or main residence cases which went to the High Court
The first case was Bradford v Anderton, 1991.
Mr Anderton was a Merchant Seaman who, due to his trade, spent less than seventy days each year at the address where he was registered for the payment of the Poll Tax. It was decided that he was correctly registered for payment at that address, as it was his main or sole residence.
In deciding liability, the judgement disregarded the length of time spent away from the dwelling. Instead, it took into consideration the reason why time was spent at two (or more) residences.
Later significant cases:
Horsham v Williams, 2004
Mr. Williams resided in college accommodation with his wife. He also owned another property nearby, Pump Cottage, but neither he nor his wife actually stayed there during the period in dispute. Horsham Council deemed that the property he owned was his main residence because he had security of tenure and there was an intention to reside there at some future date. The local Valuation Tribunal agreed with Horsham, then the case went to the High Court.
The High Court said that the Tribunal had made a mistake by placing too much emphasis on the fact that Mr. Williams had security of tenure at Pump Cottage and that he intended to reside there at some future date, and had paid insufficient attention to other factors. The case then went to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal held that a reasonable onlooker when looking at the facts would view the college accommodation as Mr. Williams's main residence. One important factor was that neither he nor his wife had spent any time at Pump Cottage, despite it being close to the college, and they were therefore not physically resident. The judgement held that the starting point, when deciding on a person’s main residence, should be to consider whether or not a person was physically resident at a property. If they were, all the other factors should be considered, without placing too much weight on any one factor, and a decision made based on the balance of the evidence..
Bennett v. Copeland 2004
Mr Bennett owned a house in Cumbria. The house was rented to tenants but they had no lease agreements. Mr Bennett led an unsettled life and resided in various places depending on his work commitments, such as B&Bs and friends’ houses. He rarely returned to the Cumbria house, but he did have a legal freehold interest and was able to return at any time if he wished to.
The local council had decided that the Cumbria house was his main residence because he did not have a permanent residence anywhere else, but the High Court rejected this because Mr Bennett never actually resided in the property, even though he intended to when he retired. The council had not used the correct starting point (i.e. they had not started by considering where he actually physically resided), had given too much weight to certain factors, and had failed to distinguish between residence and ownership.
Other cases - summarised
Cox. v. London Southwest Valuation Tribunal & Poole Council 1994 - held that the marital or family home is the main residence in the absence of other deciding factors.
Codner v. Wiltshire 1994 - held that it was inappropriate to base decisions purely on the amount of time spent at a property.
Mullaney & Clayton v. Watford 1997 - held that the place where a person sleeps is a pointer to that property being their main residence.