The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council provided Ms X with adequate housing support in line with statutory guidance. It also appropriately responded to her repair complaints. But it took too long to complete a review of her homelessness decision. The Ombudsman cannot assess the full extent of the injustice from this fault until after the outcome of any appeal to the County Court.
- The complainant, Ms X, complains the Council took too long to complete a review of its homelessness decision. She states this delayed her right of appeal to the County Court.
- Ms X also complains the Council failed to provide her with adequate housing support when she was threatened with eviction.
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 we considered this complaint
- We have:
- Read the papers submitted by Ms X and discussed the complaint with her.
- Considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and the supporting documents it provided.
- Provided both parties with an opportunity to comment on the draft decision.
What we 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.
Events leading to the complaint
Ms X approached the Council as homeless
- In May 2017, Ms X moved into supported hostel accommodation. The licence agreement states, “The licensor reserves the right to terminate at will this agreement on any reason giving 28 days prior notice”. Ms X moved to a different hostel within the same scheme in July 2017 because of reported issues with her neighbours.
- On 25 September 2017, the hostel wrote to Ms X about terminating her licence agreement and said it had passed the case to its solicitors. Four days later, Ms X attended a housing appointment with the Council and said her hostel accommodation was unsuitable because of anti-social behaviour. She also complained she was the only woman living there and she was unable to have her three children stay with her. The Council arranged another housing appointment for Ms X but she failed to attend.
- The hostel served Ms X with a notice to quit on 11 October 2017. Ms X approached the Council again on 13 October 2017 raising issues about her accommodation. There is no record of Ms X telling the Council about the notice to quit. The Council, therefore, said Ms X was not homeless because she had the hostel accommodation and provided housing advice. It said she should contact the children’s services team where her children live and ask for an assessment to consider the suitability of their living arrangements with their father.
- In October 2017, Ms X also contacted the Council to complain about anti-social behaviour and repair issues at the hostel and the Council agreed to visit.
- On 2 November 2017 Ms X’s advocate emailed the Council. It was informed that:
- Ms X’s hostel had served her with a notice to quit which was to expire on 11 November 2017. It said this was because her support needs were more than they could provide. It also said that:
- Ms X had already approached the Council but had not been provided with any interim accommodation.
- Ms X had significant mental health conditions that make her vulnerable.
- Ms X was worried about the welfare of her children and wanted to live with them.
- Ms X contacted the Council again on 7 November 2017 and said she would lose her accommodation on 11 November. The Council, therefore, arranged for Ms X to attend a homelessness appointment on 10 November 2017. Following this appointment, the housing officer discussed the case with a manager. She said she did not consider that Ms X was in priority need and they both agreed to issue a negative decision on this basis. Ms X’s advocate raised concerns that the Council had not offered Ms X interim accommodation. He said she was threatened with homelessness and vulnerable because of her mental health issues.
- The Council also made enquiries to the relevant children’s services area and the children’s father. The enquiries confirmed that the children were living with their father and children’s services had no issues with the arrangement. The Council spoke to Ms X and explained it was going to issue a non-priority need homelessness decision.
- On 13 November 2017, the Council issued Ms X with a homelessness decision. It said after completing its enquiries it was satisfied she was not homeless because the hostel accommodation was available and reasonable for her to occupy. The Council said it had previously spoken with the hostel which confirmed it had served Ms X with notice to leave but had not yet applied to the court to evict her. There is no record of this conversation in the Council’s notes. The Council notified Ms X of her right to request a review of the decision.
- On 27 November 2017, the Council visited Ms X’s hostel to explore her repair complaints. It discovered some issues with fire doors and shower doors and sent the hostel of list of works it needed to complete.
Review of the homelessness decision started
- In December 2017, Ms X’s advocate asked for a review of its homelessness decision. The Council acknowledged the request and said it aimed to issue a decision within 56 days (by 29 January 2018). It said if it failed to do this without agreeing to an extension, Ms X could appeal to the County Court. The Council then asked Ms X’s advocate for representations.
- Ms X’s advocate sent his representations to challenge the decision on 5 January 2018. However, the Council did not receive them until 17 January 2018. On receipt of the representations, the Council decided it needed more information about Ms X’s medical history and made enquiries to her G.P. It then wrote to Ms X and asked for an extension until 22 February. Ms X also made a complaint to the Council about failure to manage repair issues at the hostel and lack of support.
- The Council forwarded information from Ms X’s G.P to its medical advisor on 6 February 2018. The same day, the Council also responded to Ms X’s complaint. It said it does not have any jurisdiction over the management of the hostel but has a duty to ensure it complies with house of multiple occupancy (HMO) requirements. The Council explained its inspection found some issues with the property but decided not to take formal enforcement action because the landlord was willing to make the necessary repairs.
- On 15 February 2018, the Council made enquiries to the hostel which said it was planning on evicting Ms X. The Council’s notes state it decided to wait 28 days to see whether the eviction would go ahead and asked Ms X for an extension until 20 March. The Council then asked for a further extension on 16 March, until 13 April 2018, but there is no evidence it took any action between 15 February and 16 March.
- On 22 March, the Council states it received information from children’s services that Ms X’s ex-partner had self-referred for support and therefore the children may have needed to live with her. Children’s services said it would send a letter with more information. The Council said this was a significant change in circumstances which it needed to explore. It also spoke to the hostel who said it had not taken court action to evict Ms X. Therefore, the Council considered she was still not threatened with homelessness, but would wait for information from children’s services before making a final decision.
- On 11 April 2018, the Council asked for an extension until 9 May. The Council also followed up with the hostel and arranged a further inspection to see whether it had completed the requested works. The Council identified some other issues and sent the hostel detail of the work the hostel needed to complete. The hostel agreed.
On 3 May the Council asked for a further extension until 4 June. There is no evidence of the Council taking any action on the case between 22 March and 3 May. On 3 May, it re-sent its medical advisors the advice request form from February 2018 because they did not receive the initial referral. The Council received a response on 14 May which said the property was suitable for Ms X to continue to occupy and she was not vulnerable.
The Council changed homelessness decision reason
- On 16 May 2018, the hostel contacted the Council and said it had put a claim to court to evict Ms X. The decided it was, therefore, unreasonable to make a not homeless decision and chased the information from children’s services. On 1 June, the Council asked for a further extension until 11 June 2018.
- In June 2018, the Court granted a Possession Order. Ms X then contacted the Council and said children’s services wanted her children to live with her. The Council said it needed evidence of this. On 14 June, the Council asked for an extension until 20 July and asked for a further extension on 20 June until 18 July. There is no evidence of any substantive action by the Council on the review to between 16 May and 2 July when the Council contacted the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT).
- CMHT told the Council it was completing an assessment on Ms X’s mental health issues. Children’s services also contacted the Council and asked it to attend a child protection conference. The Council said it could not attend but would wait for the outcome of the conference. Following the conference Ms X contacted the Council and said children’s services wanted one of her children to live with her. The Council then contacted children’s services which said this was not true.
- On 26 July 2018, Ms X moved out of the hostel following the notice of eviction. The same day the Council told Ms X it was minded to uphold the original decision. It said while she was now homeless, she was not in priority need, and therefore the Council would not accept a homelessness duty. The Council also told Ms X it had considered her circumstances and had decided not to exercise discretion to provide her with interim accommodation pending the review decision.
- The Council provided Ms X’s solicitor with the opportunity to provide representations following its ‘minded to’ letter. It then sent Ms X its review decision on 12 September 2018 which said she was not in priority need.
Hostel management and repairs
- Ms X complains the Council failed to ensure the hostel provided adequate support. I am satisfied the Council had no jurisdiction to intervene in the level of support Ms X received. The hostel is not owned by the Council and it did not place her there under a homelessness duty.
- I am also satisfied that the Council adequately responded to Ms X’s complaints about repair issues. It completed inspections and follow-up inspections in response to Ms X’s complaints. The Council identified some repair issues at the property under HMO regulations which it asked the hostel to rectify. The Council has discretion to decide whether to take enforcement action. In this case the Council said it was not appropriate because the hostel was willing to complete the work. Where there is no evidence of fault, the Ombudsman will not challenge the Council’s professional judgement.
Homelessness decision and review
- Government guidance states that where a valid section 21 notice has been issued, the landlord intends to seek possession and it is unlikely to be reasonable for the tenant to stay beyond its expiry. However, the tenant has a legal right to remain in the property and therefore the Council has discretion to consider whether it is reasonable for them to remain.
- In this case the Council was not aware of the section 21 notice until 2 November. Therefore, it did not have to consider whether to take a homelessness application until this date. On receipt of this information the Council arranged for Ms X to attend the office and it took a homelessness application. Therefore, there is no fault by the Council for not taking a homelessness application earlier.
- The Council initially said it was going to issue a non-priority need decision but then changed its mind after speaking to the hostel which said it had not applied to the court for eviction. The Council, therefore, considered it was reasonable for her to occupy the hostel accommodation. This is a decision the Council is entitled to make. However, the conversation with the hostel is not recorded and the Council should ensure it keeps accurate records.
- The Council accepts it took longer than the recommended 56 days to complete the review. It explained it could have issued a not homeless decision in February 2018 but there was a danger Ms X would become homeless in the next couple of months and would need to re-apply. Therefore, it decided to hold onto the case for longer and deal with the change in circumstances.
- The Council became aware that the hostel was going to pursue the eviction in May 2018. It also became aware of potential children’s services issues in March 2018. However, it did not chase information from children’s services until 16 May. The Council did not receive substantive information from children’s services until July 2018. The Council was not responsible for the delay in receiving this information, but there is no evidence it chased children’s services in April or June, when it knew the information would be needed. I acknowledge that the child protection conference did not take place until July 2018. But the Council could have established enough information from children’s services to make a decision in April, May or June.
- There was also delay getting medical advice. The Council made initial enquiries in February 2018 but did not receive a response until May 2018. The notes state that the medical advisor did not receive the first request. But in response to my enquiries the Council said it asked the medical advisor to hold off on providing advice. However, this is not evidenced in the notes. Therefore, there was avoidable delay getting medical advice. There is also no evidence of any substantive action on the review between 16 May and 2 July.
- At every stage, the Council appropriately wrote to Ms X asking for an extension. I have not seen any evidence that Ms X refused the extensions or exercised her right to apply to the County Court. I accept the review took longer than the recommended 56 days because of Ms X’s change in circumstances. However, there were also periods where the Council failed to take substantive action and or chase responses from children’s services and its medical advisor. Therefore, I consider there was avoidable delay of two months.
- This delay caused Ms X some frustration and prolonged her uncertainty about the review decision, which the Council should apologise for. However, I am unable to assess whether this delay caused Ms X any further injustice. This is because I do not know what the outcome of her appeal to the County Court will be. Following this appeal, Ms X has the right to approach the Ombudsman again to have her injustice re-considered.
- In recognition for the faults identified above the Council, within four weeks of my final decision, should:
- Apologise to Ms X for the unavoidable delay in completing the review of her homelessness decision and the frustration, time and trouble this caused her.
- The Council provided Ms X with adequate housing support in line with statutory guidance. It also appropriately responded to her repair complaints. But it took too long to complete a review of her homelessness decision. The Ombudsman cannot assess the full extent of the injustice from this fault until after the outcome of any appeal to the County Court.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I have not considered the injustice stemming from the avoidable delay on Ms X’s housing. This is because I do not know what the outcome of her appeal to the County Court will be. Following this appeal, Ms X has the right to approach the Ombudsman again, within 12 months, to have the injustice considered.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman