The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss B complained that the Council evicted her from her emergency accommodation when she was pregnant in 2015. We consider the Council was at fault in the way it made the decision and delayed in carrying out the review. It did not extend Miss B’s accommodation and lost contact with her, causing her significant distress at a difficult time. The Council has agreed to pay her £500 and improve its procedures.
- Miss B complains that the London Borough of Ealing (the Council) evicted her from emergency accommodation in 2015 when she was seven months pregnant. She says that as a result her child was taken off her for adoption and she had a breakdown.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- 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)
- 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
- I have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have written to Miss B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- When a person applies to a council for accommodation and it has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, a number of duties arise, including:
- to make enquiries;
- to secure suitable accommodation for certain applicants pending the outcome of the enquiries;
- to notify the applicant of the decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
- people with dependent children;
- pregnant women;
- people with serious health problems;
- some elderly people.
- Miss B approached the Council on 23 January 2015 for housing. She had just come out of prison, was pregnant and homeless. The Council accepted she was homeless and in priority need. It provided bed and breakfast accommodation while it made enquiries into her situation (interim accommodation).
- On 4 February 2015 it wrote to her at the interim accommodation, saying it had decided she was intentionally homeless because she had lost her previous accommodation due to committing a crime which led to her prison sentence. It said her accommodation would end on 4 March 2015.
- Miss B wrote to the Council on 18 February 2015 disputing the decision. She said while she was in prison, an officer worked out her sentence would be less than 13 weeks so housing benefit should remain payable. The prison contacted her landlord but he did not want the accommodation to remain empty while she was in prison.
- The Council acknowledged her review request by sending a letter to the interim accommodation on 25 February 2015. It said it would carry out the review on 6 April 2015 and if Miss B wished to provide any more information she should do so by 23 March 2015. It made no mention of continuing the interim accommodation.
- Miss B says that three days before she was due to be evicted she went into premature labour and had her baby two months early.
- The Council considered her case between 10 and 15 April 2015. A different officer contacted the supported housing where Miss B had been living prior to her prison sentence. On the basis of the information provided the Council concluded that the original decision was significantly flawed: the original officer had not made sufficient enquiries to establish if the accommodation was affordable to her or reasonable to occupy (she had been in rent arrears). There was also a question over the advice given to her to relinquish her tenancy given that housing benefit may have been payable.
- On 15 April 2015 the Council indicated its preliminary view that the decision should be set aside and further enquiries carried out. But it did not complete the review or try to contact Miss B until 2 June 2015, when an officer tried unsuccessfully to contact her by telephone. They tried again on 3 June 2015 but were unsuccessful.
- As the Council had no address for Miss B it left a copy of the review decision on file for her to collect. The Council received no further contact from Miss B and closed the case on 30 June 2015.
- Miss B complained to the Ombudsman in July 2018. She said she had be in local authority care as a child, had severe depression and on medication since the age of 14. She said had substance abuse issues at the time of these events. She said her daughter was eventually adopted and she had a breakdown. She said she wrote a letter of complaint but did not receive a reply.
- Even though Miss B took three years to complain to us, we exercised discretion to investigate due to her vulnerability and subsequent health problems.
- The Council took a homeless application from Miss B and provided interim accommodation while it made enquiries. However, it did not make sufficient enquiries to properly consider whether Miss B was intentionally homeless and its first decision was significantly flawed.
- The review process would have corrected this fault if the Council had completed the review within the required eight weeks, kept in contact with Miss B and extended the interim accommodation. But it took 15 weeks to complete the review and did not attempt to keep in contact with Miss B during this period. By the time it completed the review it had no address or contact details for her.
- It knew she was pregnant and vulnerable and that her accommodation was due to end on 4 March 2015. But it did not use its power to consider extending that accommodation while it considered the review.
- The Council has argued that case law says it does not have to consider extending the accommodation unless the applicant makes a request. I agree that it does not have to consider its discretionary power unless a specific request is made. But I note neither the legislation nor the statutory guidance in force at the time says it can only use the power when requested. I maintain it was fault not to do more to communicate with Miss B at this crucial time and alert her to this possibility. The situation caused Miss B a significant degree of stress: she was made homeless three days after the premature birth of her baby.
- I cannot conclude that the Council would have decided Miss B was not intentionally homeless. But from the information provided the Council may well have decided it had a statutory duty to provide housing. Miss B has been left with significant uncertainty as to how her situation may have been different had the fault not occurred.
- Since then she has struggled to stabilise her life, experienced significant health problems and the adoption of her child. I cannot conclude that those events directly followed from the Council’s actions but the fault certainly exacerbated an already very difficult situation.
- In recognition of the injustice caused to Miss B I asked the Council to pay her £500.
- I also asked the Council to ensure it carries out reviews within the statutory timescales, considers its powers to extend accommodation pending a review and makes every effort to keep in touch with applicants during the process.
- The Council has agreed to my recommendations
- I consider this is a fair and reasonable way of resolving the complaint and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman