Charities have reported a rise in domestic violence during the recession
Women staying in refuges after fleeing domestic violence are still technically homeless, the Law Lords have ruled.
The judgement means that women staying in shelters must be given urgent help by local authorities to find a permanent home.
Law Lord Baroness Hale said it established an "important principle".
Helen Jackson, from the charity Shelter, said councils "must now offer women priority housing to help them rebuild their shattered lives".
Wednesday's ruling overturns a decision which was made in the case of Sharon Moran - a woman who fled her home in Manchester in 2006 because of her partner's violence.
She went to stay at a women's refuge, but was evicted within weeks because of her behaviour towards staff.
At the time, the law stated that a refuge was formally classed as "accommodation" in which a woman could reasonably be expected to stay.
As a result, anyone living there was not defined as homeless and not given "priority need" status.
Manchester County Council took the view, therefore, that in being ejected Ms Moran had become intentionally homeless from adequate accommodation and so was only entitled to short-term care while she took steps to find a new home for herself.
Lawyer Adam Fullwood, who represented Ms Moran, welcomed the ruling.
"This is a just decision for victims of domestic violence and vital for the refuge movement as a whole," he said.
"Ms Moran was extremely vulnerable and her case is illustrative of the extreme difficulties that women, often with children, have to face when fleeing from an abusive partner."
Mr Fullwood said Ms Moran was no longer directly affected by the case because her circumstances had changed, but the decision will apply in most situations similar to hers from now on.
Baroness Hale, sitting with Lords Hope, Scott, Walker and Neuberger, said: "The important principle established here is that in most cases a woman who has left her home because of domestic, or other, violence within it remains homeless even if she has found a temporary haven in a women's refuge."
Organisations helping victims of domestic violence say they have seen a rise in reported abuse coinciding with the economic downturn.
Ms Jackson said: "Many already vulnerable women who have turned to local authorities for help after fleeing violent partners have been told they are not homeless or have made themselves homeless.
"Today's ruling means that in most cases a local authority can no longer refuse a woman's homelessness application because she is staying in a refuge or other emergency accommodation.
"Local authorities must now offer women priority housing to help them rebuild their shattered lives."