When is a family not a family? When that family does not include children, as far as Spain’s Constitutional Court is concerned. According to a recent judgement a couple with no children is ineligible to benefit as a ‘family unit’ from protection against eviction in the country’s housing meltdown.

The ruling this month by Spain’s Constitutional Court has focused attention again on the impact of the country’s wrenching housing crisis. As documented in Human Rights Watch’s recent report, “Shattered Dreams,” that impact is particularly harsh on vulnerable groups such as women, immigrants, and children, who face eviction, chronic debt, and social exclusion.

Faced with widespread public opposition and criticism from the EU Court of Justice, the Spanish government introduced a law in May 2013 that broadened slightly protection from eviction for certain groups. But it left in place criteria that unjustifiably exclude some families, covering a two-parent household with a child under age 3, for example, but not the family next door with a 4-year-old. 

Last week’s court ruling restricted protection even further by excluding families without children altogether. The case was brought in September 2013 by an unemployed man with a disability and his unemployed wife from Madrid, requesting a stay of eviction from their home due to their difficult circumstances. They had good reason to believe they could get relief: the 2013 law protects especially vulnerable debtors from eviction, including unemployed persons and people with disabilities. Yet, despite meeting these requirements, along with a laundry list of other ones, the couple’s request was dismissed because they were childless. According to the Madrid court’s decision, the lack of children means the couple cannot be considered a “family unit” under the debtor protection laws.

The couple appealed, arguing that the law does not define a family unit as having children, and interpreting the law that way unnecessarily discriminates against couples who cannot, or do not wish to have children. However, on June 4th, the Constitutional Court affirmed the earlier decision, saying that the debtor protection law was only intended to apply in concrete situations of need, and that the presence of two parents and children are indispensable elements of a “family unit” under the law.

Two of the judges disagreed, noting that using this definition of a family leads to “absurd” conclusions. Read in this way, the law does not, for example, protect widows with large families or couples with disabilities who do not have children. With these new additional restraints on an already narrow law, it’s hard to see how it can benefit those in Spanish society who need it most.

Human Rights Watch and many other groups have been calling on Spain to broaden the criteria for protection from eviction for several years. Now more than ever the Spanish authorities should step in and act to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society from losing their homes.