The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms A complains about the Council’s failure to provide her with any housing assistance or advice following her eviction from her privately rented accommodation despite having two children and nowhere to live. There was fault by the Council which caused Ms A injustice and which the Council will remedy by the payment of £1070.
- Ms A complains the Council failed to provide her with any housing assistance or advice following her eviction from her privately rented accommodation despite having two children and nowhere to live. She also complains about its negative decision on her homelessness application. The Council’s lack of assistance caused distress and upset and she incurred costs moving between friends and hotel accommodation.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated the part of Ms A’s complaint which concerns the way the Council dealt with her request for housing assistance following her eviction. The last paragraph of this statement explains why I have not dealt with Ms A’s complaint about the Council’s decision on her homelessness application.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- In considering the complaint I spoke to Ms A and reviewed the information she and the Council provided. Both Ms A and the Council were given the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Ms A is a single mother with two children, one of whom has special educational needs. Having lived for a number of years in a privately rented flat, the landlord told her he wanted the property back.
- On 5 June 2017, having unsuccessfully tried to find her own alternative accommodation, Ms A contacted the Council seeking assistance as she was due to be evicted on 3 July. At her appointment a week later she was interviewed by a housing officer and completed a homelessness application.
- As part of its enquiries the Council contacted the landlord for information in relation to Ms A’s eviction and his response indicated that she had significant rent arrears.
- On 3 July, having been served with an eviction warrant by bailiffs, Ms A went to the Council’s offices where she was given, by hand, the decision letter on her homelessness application. The Council had decided that due to rent arrears she was intentionally homeless and so it had no duty to rehouse her.
- The Council says that on giving Ms A the decision letter, the officer on duty told her that her options were to stay with friends/family, appeal the decision, be referred to Social Services and to consider renting again in the private sector. Ms A says this is not what she was told and that it was made clear to her that she would receive no help. She also says she was treated poorly by staff who were antagonistic and insulted her and asked her to leave the housing office.
- Having no other accommodation, Ms A stayed with friends and in hotel accommodation which she arranged and paid for. She sought legal advice from solicitors and on 21 July she submitted a review request challenging the Council’s decision on her homelessness application. On 26 July, the Council withdrew its decision.
- On 4 August, the Council provided Ms A with temporary accommodation. On 18 August, it reversed its decision and accepted a full housing duty towards Ms A having established that she was not intentionally homeless. Its further enquiries had established that the landlord had issued the notice to quit before any rent arrears had arisen as he wanted the property back to carry out repairs and so there had been no act or omission by Ms A which had led to her eviction.
- An authority is under an immediate duty to secure interim accommodation for an applicant whilst it makes enquiries in relation to their homelessness application if there is 'reason to believe' the applicant may be eligible, homeless and in priority need. The threshold for activating this duty is low, and while it is legitimate for the authority to ask an applicant if they would prefer to make their own alternative arrangements, there is a clear duty on the authority to arrange the accommodation if the applicant is unable to do so. Ms A’s circumstances were such that she was owed this duty but she was not offered any interim accommodation and this was fault by the Council which caused her injustice.
- In responding to my enquiries, the Council has accepted it has inadequate file notes and so cannot say whether Ms A was offered and rejected short term temporary accommodation in accordance with its statutory housing duty. It says Ms A told officers she planned to stay with family and friends but its records do not reflect this and Ms A disputes she said this.
- The Council has acknowledged that if Ms A’s case had been dealt with correctly at the start of the process she would have qualified for temporary accommodation. Given her situation and what she has said, I consider she would have accepted this accommodation had it been offered. Instead she was left to move between friends and hotel accommodation for a month, incurring costs as a result and suffering distress and upset.
- The Council has recognised that Ms A’s initial application was not considered properly and that there were failings in respect of the housing advice she was then given. During the course of my investigation the Council offered £200 in recognition of this fault and agreed to consider reimbursing Ms A for any reasonable expenses she incurred between 3 July and 26 July, when the initial decision was withdrawn.
- The Council has pointed to the fact that Ms A did not submit her review request until 21 July when she could have done so any time after 3 July, and that while its homelessness decision was withdrawn on 26 July, she did not present herself at its offices to request temporary accommodation until 4 August, at which point it was provided. However, having considered matters and Ms A’s comments on her actions during this time, I do not intend to look at these relatively short periods of time in any further detail and view the relevant period to be between 3 July and 4 August.
- I note Ms A’s account of her treatment by officers when she was in the Council’s offices. I am not able to determine now exactly what took place and what was said but I have nevertheless taken into account that she was left feeling distressed and that she received no assistance at the time she needed it.
- I welcomed the Council’s offer to pay Ms A £200 and to consider reimbursing her reasonable costs. However, in recognition of the uncertainty, distress and time and trouble caused to Ms A I also proposed the Council pay her an additional £150 and it has agreed to do so. To this payment of £350 a further £720 will be paid by the Council to cover the reasonable expenses she incurred.
- There was fault by the Council which caused Ms A injustice and which the Council will remedy by the payment of £1070.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- The restriction highlighted at paragraph 4 applies to the part of Ms A’s complaint which concerns the Council’s decision on her homelessness application. This matter was not investigated because it falls outside our jurisdiction as Ms A had an alternative remedy by means of appeal rights to the courts to challenge the decision which we would have expected her to have made use of.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman