The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: There was fault by the Council. It decided that Miss B was not threatened with homelessness but it did not tell her that she had a right to ask it to review its decision. Miss B does not agree that it is reasonable for her to stay in her current tenancy and so she lost the opportunity to seek a review. The Council has reviewed its processes and trained staff. It has agreed that it will also apologise to Miss B, invite her to request a review of its decision and complete its review within one month of her request.
- Miss B complains the Council has not done enough to resolve her homelessness. Miss B feels that she has to live in unaffordable accommodation as a result of the Council’s actions.
- I have investigated the Council’s actions since September 2017, but not whether it was wrong to decide that it did not have a duty to rehouse her under homelessness law. I have set out below why I have limited the scope of my investigation.
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)
- 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 information provided by the complainant. I have also considered the Council’s response to my enquiries including the correspondence between the parties and the Council’s file records. Both parties have had the opportunity to comment on a draft of this statement. The Council responded to agree the proposed remedy.
What I found
- The main homelessness duties are set out in the Housing Act 1986. This was amended by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 which changed some of the duties with effect from April 2018. The Government issued a Code of Guidance setting out how councils should interpret the law. This was updated to take account of the new law.
The law up to 3 April 2018
- Before the law changed, someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking for assistance from the Council before 3 April 2018, he or she is likely to become homeless within 28 days. (Housing Act 1996, section 175(4))
The law since 3 April 2018
- On 3 April 2019, the law changed. On or after that date someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking from assistance from the Council, he or she is likely to become homeless within 56 days. (Housing Act 1996, section 175(4))
- Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. The Code of Guidance says, rather than advise the applicant to return when homelessness is more imminent, the housing authority may wish to accept a prevention duty and begin to take reasonable steps to prevent homelessness. Councils must notify the applicant of the assessment. Councils should work with applicants to identify practical and reasonable steps for the council and the applicant to take to help the applicant keep or secure suitable accommodation. These steps should be tailored to the household, and follow from the findings of the assessment, and must be provided to the applicant in writing as their personalised housing plan. (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)
- If Councils are satisfied applicants are threatened with homelessness and eligible for assistance, they must take a homelessness application. They must also help them to secure that accommodation does not stop being available for their occupation. This is called the prevention duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 195)
- If the Council decides the applicant is not homeless or threatened with homelessness, it does not owe her any duty at that stage. Applicants can request a review within 21 days of being notified of a number of decisions, including their eligibility for assistance.
- Miss B had been on the housing register and bidding for properties for two years but had not secured anything. She continued to live in rented accommodation until she was given notice to leave. The Council did not accept that it had a full housing duty to her because as a single person and not vulnerable, she was not in priority need. The Council issued its decision in March 2018. The Council’s decision letter set out Miss B’s right to request a review of its decision.
- Miss B moved into new privately rented accommodation in July 2018. She contacted the Council again as she was finding it hard to afford the rent. She also complained that the Council should have offered her help with the rent in advance and deposit.
- The Council had understood when Miss B moved to her current private rented property in July 2018, that she was adequately housed and so it removed her from the housing register. It told her she could ask it to review this decision. However, the Council was concerned that Miss B’s property was not affordable and it needed to make an assessment as to whether it was reasonable for her to stay there.
- The Council called Miss B to make sure that the property was affordable twice in July, but could not reach her or leave a message. The Council emailed Miss B and asked her to call it or make an appointment to discuss her housing situation.
- The Council eventually contacted Miss B on 8 August. Miss B had received an eviction notice and told the Council she could not afford the property anyway. She was feeling unwell and so the Council arranged to call her again the following afternoon. However, when it did so, Miss B did not answer and there was no facility to leave a message. The Council emailed Miss B and tried again to call her later that month.
- By this time, homelessness law had changed. This meant the Council needed to decide whether Miss B was threatened with homelessness within 56 days and whether it had a prevention duty. The Council decided it could not accept that it had a prevention duty as it did not have enough detail about the notice and Miss B’s current circumstances.
- Miss B responded to the Council’s email on 12 September. She said she was about to be evicted. The Council responded by email as requested by Miss B asking for more information. Miss B contacted the Council again on 20 September and the Council established that Miss B had no rent arrears, that she was working full time, and did not have a current notice to leave the property. Miss B said she had council tax arrears and a small credit union loan. The Council checked Miss B’s council tax account and found that it had written off over £500 and made arrangement to pay the arrears by instalments. The Council told Miss B that she was not at risk of homelessness and so it closed her case.
- The Council did not accept it had a duty to prevent homelessness or relieve homelessness, and so it did not take any action to find alternative accommodation. It wrote to Miss B with its decision but it did not set out how Miss B could challenge this.
- In the meantime, the Council responded to Miss B’s complaint. It told Miss B that it was correct to find that it had no duty to house her in March 2018, as she was not in priority need. However, the Council said that the new legislation had come into force in April and so the Council will work with Miss B to assess her housing needs and agree a personal housing plan.
- The Council also said that its budget to help with rent in advance and deposits is limited. The Council would not have helped Miss B with a deposit or rent in advance for her current accommodation because it is unaffordable.
- Miss B complained to the Ombudsman in September 2018. The Council has again offered to review Miss B’s current circumstances. It says it made appointments with Miss B to assess whether her property is affordable, but Miss B did not attend. The Council has also reviewed its processes and trained staff so that when it makes a decision it clearly sets out how an applicant can request a review.
Was there fault by the Council causing Miss B an injustice?
- I have seen the Council’s file documents. It is clear that the Council did contact Miss B and emailed her when it could not make telephone contact. It was clear about what information it needed and how it had made its decision that it did not have a duty to prevent Miss B’s homelessness in September 2018.
- However, the Council did not set out Miss B’s right to request the Council to review its decision that she was not threatened with homelessness and that it did not have a prevention duty to her, when it wrote to her with its decision.
- Miss B missed out on her right to have the decision reviewed. We cannot say whether the review would have been favourable and resulted in any different outcome for her. The Council’s decision that it had no duty to Miss B is best tested by the review process.
- The Council responded properly to Miss B’s complaints to it and within a reasonable time.
- The Council has agreed that within one month of this decision it will show the Ombudsman it has:
- Apologised to Miss B;
- Shared this decision with the relevant staff; and
- Invited Miss B to request a review of its decision that she is not threatened with homelessness.
- I have completed my investigation. The Council was at fault and caused Miss B injustice.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- 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)
- I appreciate that Miss B has had a stressful time and financial difficulties. But there is no good reason she could not have complained to the Ombudsman sooner and so I have not investigated the Council’s actions prior to September 2017.
- 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).
- It was open to Miss B to go to court to challenge the Council decision of March 2018 that it did not owe her a homelessness duty. We would expect Miss B to use that right.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman