The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: There were serious failings in the way the Council responded to Miss X’s housing needs as a vulnerable woman who was homeless because of domestic abuse and harassment. This had a significant impact on Miss X. She was left for a long time in accommodation where she was at risk. The Council has accepted our findings and recommendations for a remedy.
- Miss X complains that the Council failed to properly assess and meet her housing needs since August 2018 when she first asked for housing assistance due to domestic violence and was referred to the Safeguarding Adults team. In particular, she complains that the Council did not:
- make sufficient efforts to rehouse her;
- keep her properly informed about the progress of her case;
- respond to contacts and communications made by third parties on her behalf.
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 spoken to Miss X, considered the Council’s responses to my enquiries and records from the housing and safeguarding adults team’s files. I also considered the Housing Service’s domestic abuse policy and procedures.
- I received information from the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference which considered Miss X’s case.
- I gave Miss X and the Council the opportunity to comment on my draft decision and made some amendments.
What I found
The relevant law and guidance
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to help people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
The duty to assess housing needs and prepare a Personalised Housing Plan
- Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. Councils must notify the applicant of the assessment. They should work with applicants to identify practical and reasonable steps the council and the applicant will 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 (PHP). (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)
The duty to consider interim accommodation
- If a council has reason to believe an applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need, it has a duty to provide interim accommodation to the applicant pending a decision on their homelessness application. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
Threatened with homelessness
- A person is “threatened with homelessness” if:
- he or she is likely to become homeless within 56 days; or
- he or she has been served with a valid Section 21 notice which will expire within 56 days. [Housing Act 1996, section 175(4) & (5)]
Homelessness - domestic violence and abuse
- A person may be deemed homeless if he or she cannot reasonably continue to occupy his or her accommodation. Section 177 of the Housing Act 1996 says it is not reasonable for someone to continue occupying accommodation if it is probable it will lead to domestic violence against him or her. Domestic violence is defined as violence, or threats of violence, which are likely to be carried out by a person associated with the victim.
- The February 2018 version of the Homelessness Code of Guidance was in force when Miss X made the first application for housing assistance in September 2018. A chapter in the Code on domestic abuse says “violence” includes threatening or intimidating behaviour and other forms of abuse.
The relief duty
- Councils must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation for any eligible homeless person. This is called the “relief duty”. When a council decides this duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
The Council’s domestic abuse policy and procedures
- The Housing Service has a domestic abuse policy and procedures to provide guidance to officers about meeting the needs of survivors of domestic abuse and violence. The current version is dated July 2014. It has not been updated to reflect amendments introduced by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and more recent versions of the Homelessness Code of Guidance.
- The policy says:
It is […] essential that people who experience domestic abuse feel safe and supported in order that they can talk about their experiences.”
- When a survivor approaches the Housing Service for advice and assistance, an interview should take place as soon as possible and within three working days.
- Staff must not pass on or share information with any third parties except with the survivor’s written consent. If the survivor is a vulnerable adult, and is considered to be at risk of serious harm, the policy says it may be reasonable to pass on information to third parties without the person’s consent. An adult over 18 who has mental health needs is considered vulnerable and an “adult at risk”.
- Harrow MARAC is the multi-agency risk assessment conference which takes the lead in safety planning for high risk victims of domestic abuse. It brings together professionals from the police, health authorities, social services, housing authorities and other agencies to share information about the highest risk domestic abuse cases in the borough. MARAC writes a safety plan for each victim which may include each agency taking action to safeguard the victim. MARAC will refer someone who is at risk of serious injury to an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA) for further support. Floating support to domestic abuse survivors is provided by another organisation in Harrow.
- The policy refers to the relevant law and statutory guidance on homelessness. It says the Council must provide temporary accommodation to applicants if it has reason to believe they are eligible, homeless or at risk of homelessness, and in priority need. The policy recognises that a survivor of domestic abuse with no dependent children may still be in priority need due to vulnerability.
- Where an applicant presents as homeless due to domestic abuse, the Housing Advice team needs to consider the risk of violence, or threats of violence, from inside or outside the home in order to assess the needs of the applicant.
- The policy refers to the Homelessness Code of Guidance which says a housing authority does not need to obtain evidence of domestic abuse in order to provide support. But statements from professionals such as the police, the survivor’s doctor or social worker, or an IDVA may be used to inform the homelessness assessment.
- Miss X has lived in private rented accommodation in the Harrow area for several years. Her adult son moved in to support her following an incident in 2018 when her former partner tracked her down and tried to gain entry to her home.
- Miss X has longstanding and severe mental health problems and a physical condition which limits her mobility. She is dyslexic and has difficulty with reading and writing.
Events in 2018
- On 9 August an officer in the Community Safety Unit notified the mental health safeguarding team that Miss X had contacted the police to report harassment from her ex-partner. The officer said Miss X suffers from depression, anxiety and recurring panic attacks. He said Miss X would be making a statement to the Council about the recent incident.
- In early September 2018 Miss X completed an online homelessness form to request housing assistance. She explained she had support needs because of her mental health problems. She was seeking assistance as a homeless person because she was at risk from violence or harassment. She included details of her email address and mobile phone number.
- The following day, Officer A, who works in the Housing Needs and Assessment team, made a case note entry which seems to be based on a telephone conversation he had with Miss X. He recorded more details about the harassment from her ex-partner. The ex-partner contacted Miss X frequently by email and telephone and turned up at her home and banged on the door. Miss X told Officer A she had reported this recent incident to the police.
- On the same day, Officer A emailed Miss X to offer her an appointment on 12 September to discuss the homelessness application. I have seen this email. Officer A sent it to the email address Miss X entered on the online homelessness form. However, Miss X had not spelled the email address correctly so she did not get Officer A’s email.
- The Council says Officer A left a voicemail message for Miss X on 11 September to remind her about the appointment. Miss X says she did not get a message. She did not attend on 12 September because she did not know about the appointment.
- On 13 September Officer A’s manager asked for an update on the progress of the case. She noted he had closed it. On the same day the manager attended a MARAC meeting where Miss X’s case was discussed. She informed the meeting that Miss X had not shown up for her appointment with Officer A the previous day.
- The Council says Officer A called Miss X again on 13 September and left another message on her voicemail. Miss X says she did not receive any messages from Officer A. There is no contemporaneous record of Officer A’s two September calls in the housing records sent to me.
- In response to my initial enquiries, the Council said an officer had contacted the police to request information about the history of domestic violence and harassment. However, the police refused to provide information without Miss X’s consent. The Council said an officer had contacted Miss X to seek her consent but she did not respond.
- When I asked to see evidence of the Council’s contact with the police and Miss X, the Council then told me it did not need Miss X’s consent because she had already given permission for the Council to contact other agencies when she completed the homelessness form in early September 2018. The form includes a statement explaining that the Council may share information with other agencies.
- I have considered all the housing records the Council sent me. These include an undated extract from a police email informing Officer A he had not used the appropriate form to request information about Miss X’s case. I have seen no evidence in the records that Officer A then made a further enquiry to the police or contacted Miss X.
- The Council did not inform Miss X of the decision to close her case in September 2018 due to lack of contact. So she did not know about this decision and could not challenge it.
- In mid-October 2018 Miss X’s GP made a referral to the Safeguarding Adults Service. She said MARAC should consider Miss X’s circumstances and she needed ongoing support from an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate. She said Miss X was too frightened to leave home. She said Miss X’s former partner had been cautioned for domestic violence and had convictions for harassing her. He had tracked her down and stalked her. The police had installed a panic button in her home.
- The GP said Miss X is very vulnerable. She suffers from panic attacks and severe mental health issues. Miss X believes her ex-partner may kill her and he had carried out serious assaults on her in the past. The GP asked MARAC to consider rehousing Miss X in an area where she could continue to be supported by the GP and the local mental health team. The GP’s letter included a detailed summary of Miss X’s medical conditions and medical history.
- The manager of the Safeguarding Adults team considered the GP’s letter. She noted Miss X was already known to mental health services as a vulnerable adult. She forwarded the GP’s letter to the mental health NHS safeguarding team for “urgent action”.
- In late October Miss X attended a meeting with officers from the Safeguarding Adults team. She gave details about her ex-partner’s abusive behaviour and his history of stalking her and turning up at her home. She said he had been charged by the police and there was a restraining order in place to prevent him from contacting her. But he had breached the terms of injunctions before. She also mentioned that her landlord had threatened to sell the property and end her tenancy. She told officers about her anxiety and regular panic attacks. She said she was socially isolated and had no friends or support network in the area, apart from her son. The officers decided:
- To refer Miss X to a domestic violence support group and a floating support worker;
- Miss X would contact an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate to seek further support.
Events in 2019
- In mid-January 2019 Miss X’s landlord served her with a Section 21 Notice. She gave Miss X two months’ notice and said she must leave by 22 March.
- Miss X then contacted the Housing Needs service again to ask for further assistance. Officer A dealt with the new application. He contacted Miss X’s landlord on 21 January who confirmed she wanted the property back.
- On 7 February Officer A discussed Miss X’s case with his manager. The case notes say the manager instructed Officer A to complete a Personalised Housing Plan (PHP) for Miss X and offer her suitable accommodation under the relief duty.
- Officer A spoke to Miss X when she visited the Council offices on 11 February. I have seen his notes. Miss X expressed concern about her housing situation. She said she had seen her ex-partner near her home. Officer A said he would speak to his manager. He suggested Miss X should also look for alternative private rented accommodation and the Council would help by paying the deposit and rent in advance. Miss X said this was not a suitable option for her.
- Following this contact, Officer A decided it was not possible to retain Miss X’s accommodation because the landlord was intent on recovering possession. His notes say Miss X could not find alternative accommodation herself because of her mental health issues.
- The Council sent an undated note from its housing records recording its medical adviser’s opinion. The medical adviser considered Miss X would be vulnerable as a homeless person because of her severe depression and anxiety. He recommended any accommodation should be up to second floor level without a lift, or on any floor if there was a lift.
- On 11 February Officer A sent Miss X an email with a link to create an account to view her Personalised Housing Plan. It did not reach Miss X because it went to the email address she put on the September 2018 homelessness form.
- According to the Council’s chronology, Officer A asked the accommodation team to look for suitable accommodation for Miss X on 19 February. I have seen no evidence of this request in the case notes.
- On 20 February 2019 Officer A wrote to Miss X to say the Council owed her the prevention duty. It said:
- She was eligible for assistance;
- She was threatened with homelessness;
- The Council would take reasonable steps to help Miss X keep her current accommodation or help her find suitable alterative accommodation before she became homeless;
A copy of the PHP was attached and the letter explained Miss X’s right to request a review of the decision.
- The Council says this letter was sent in error because the manager had instructed Officer A to accept the relief duty rather than the prevention duty. It is not clear from the records whether Officer A sent the letter by email or post. Miss X says she did not receive it so she did not know the Council had accepted a duty and issued a PHP.
- On 19 March Miss X informed Officer A she had been followed recently when she left home. She had reported this incident to the police but said it had not taken any action. Officer A made a note in the case records. It seems he did not review the need to provide temporary accommodation for Miss X in the light of this new information.
- On 25 March Officer A uploaded part of an email from the Metropolitan Police to Miss X’s case records. It seems the police had replied to an enquiry from Officer A. The police said it could not disclose information about Miss X’s case unless it received the request on an approved form with suitable proof of identification. Officer A made a note to say he could not get any confirmation from the police of Miss X’s circumstances.
- The Council says Officer A then contacted Mss X to ask for her consent to obtain information from the police. But there is no evidence of this request in the housing case records and Miss X says Officer A did not contact her.
- In April 2019 Officer A’s manager questioned the validity of the Section 21 Notice Miss X’s landlord had served because she had not complied with certain legal duties to provide Miss X with information. I have seen no evidence that the Council contacted the landlord at this point to inform her the Notice was invalid.
- On 9 April Officer A wrote to tell Miss X the Council had now ended the relief duty. As she was still homeless, the Council said it now owed her the main housing duty under section 193(2) of the Housing Act. It said the Council had a duty to make sure she had suitable temporary accommodation. It advised Miss X how to apply for social housing by registering with the choice-based lettings scheme.
- The Council has since stated that the letter accepting the main housing duty was also sent in error because the 56 day relief duty period had not yet ended.
- The Council says it reissued a letter accepting the main housing duty on 29 May 2019. But it did not change the date on the letter.
- I have seen a PHP which Officer A completed on 29 May 2019. It includes a summary of Miss X’s housing needs. It noted she needed a two bedroom property for her and her son and her wish to stay in the same area. It included details of her income from disability benefits. It outlined the support provided by her son and health professionals in the local area. It said the Council would take the following steps:
- “we will look for suitable accommodation for you and your son” (done 15 March 2019);
- we will support you financially with help towards the deposit and the first month’s rent (done 15 March 2019)”
- Contacting landlords and agents to look for accommodation and arrange viewings;
- Searching property letting websites;
- Having regard to the maximum weekly rent that would be met by the Local Housing Allowance when she looked for accommodation;
- Contacting the Council if she found a suitable property to ask for financial help to pay the deposit and rent in advance.
Miss X told me she did not receive the PHP so she did not know what steps she was expected to take, or what the Council had agreed to do.
- I asked the Council if it had considered the need to arrange temporary accommodation for Miss X because of the probable risk of violence from her ex-partner at her current address. The Council told me it had considered whether to provide interim accommodation but there was no evidence from the police to back up Miss X’s claims of domestic violence.
- Whilst I note the Council’s statement, I found nothing in the case records to indicate that officers had explicitly considered the need to arrange interim or temporary accommodation for Miss X at any stage.
- I asked the Council what practical steps it had taken, since accepting the relief duty and the main housing duty, to find suitable accommodation for Miss X. The Council said it has been looking for a private rented sector property. It has not provided any evidence of property searches.
- Miss X is still in the same accommodation. Her landlord applied to the County Court order to recover possession of the property but the case was dismissed. She has not yet received an offer of accommodation from the Council.
- Miss X did not receive Officer A’s emails because she did not type her email address correctly when she completed the online homelessness form. As a result, she did not receive Officer A’s email inviting her to an interview on 12 September and other significant emails. I do not know whether Officer A received any automated messages alerting him to the fact that his emails were not delivered to Miss X. The error with the email address undoubtedly caused communication problems but this was not due to fault by the Council.
- However, I am likely to find several significant faults with the Council’s consideration of Miss X’s housing needs in 2018 and 2019:
- It has not revised the Housing Service’s domestic abuse policy and procedure to reflect significant changes to the homelessness legal duties which came into force in April 2018, and new statutory guidance on domestic abuse and homelessness;
- It did not write to inform Miss X of its decision to close her homelessness application in September 2018 due to lack of contact;
- It did not check that the Section 21 Notice was valid when Miss X first provided it in January 2019 – this was not picked up until April 2019;
- It did not contact the landlord in April 2019 to inform her the Notice was not valid;
- Officer A did not use the correct procedure to request information from the police, and did not redirect his enquiries when the police responded and informed him of the correct procedure;
- It has provided conflicting statements about whether Miss X needed to give consent for officers to request evidence from the police, or whether the consent she gave on the homelessness form was sufficient;
- It wrongly stated it needed evidence from the police to confirm the domestic abuse or violence before it could offer Miss X interim accommodation;
- It did not assess whether there was a probable risk of abuse or violence if Miss X remained in the accommodation, and it did not review the risk when Miss X informed Officer A of a further incident in March 2019;
- The Housing Service’s case records are incomplete – some telephone calls and contact with Miss X and third parties (including the police and her landlord) were not recorded, and there is no evidence in the records to support some of the statements the Council has made about action taken by officers;
- The Council was muddled about whether it owed Miss X the prevention or relief duty and sent the wrong letters;
- The PHP was not kept under regular review and updated;
- There is no evidence to demonstrate that officers took any of the practical steps to help find accommodation for Miss X as set out in the PHP;
- The Council did not provide Miss X with sensitive and timely support which she clearly needed as a vulnerable woman with serious mental health issues who had been subjected to domestic abuse and harassment.
- The Council took the following action in response to recommendations made in my draft decision:
- It interviewed Miss X, with support from an independent domestic violence advocate, to assess her current housing needs;
- It placed her in self-contained temporary accommodation;
- A senior manager has apologised in writing to Miss X for the faults identified in this investigation;
- It has paid Miss X £800 to recognise her distress and the impact of leaving her in accommodation where she was exposed to the risk of harm.
- The Council also agreed to take the following action within one month:
- Decide if it needs any evidence from third parties, such as the police, and, if it does, expedite these enquiries;
- Ensure Miss X’s Housing Register application is active with the appropriate priority award and backdate it to the date the Council accepted the relief duty;
- Review the PHP and decide if it needs to be updated. It should also consider whether it is reasonable to expect Miss X, as a vulnerable person with severe mental health issues, to take the steps set out in the plan to find accommodation herself or whether she needs intensive support from officers to find alternative accommodation;
- Review the Housing Service’s Domestic Abuse policy and procedures document to take account of the new duties introduced by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and the guidance on domestic abuse in the new Code of Guidance;
- Arrange training for officers who deal with homelessness prevention and relief cases to ensure they understand the law and guidance relating to domestic abuse and violence and to improve their awareness of the need to provide sensitive and timely support to victims;
- Ensure robust processes are in place to follow up cases which have been considered by MARAC;
- Review internal guidance and brief officers to ensure they understand that a decision about whether to provide an applicant with interim or temporary accommodation is not conditional on the police confirming incidents of domestic abuse or violence;
- Brief officers who investigate homelessness cases about the protocol and procedure for requesting evidence from the police;
- Consider whether the current statement on information-sharing and consent on the homelessness form is sufficient to enable officers to make enquiries to the police without further consent from the applicant;
- Remind officers to make a contemporaneous note in the case records of all telephone and email contact with applicants and third parties;
- Review a small sample of closed cases to ensure officers used the correct letters to notify applicants when they accepted the prevention, relief and main housing duties;
- Prepare an action plan to monitor and record progress in making these service improvements and send a copy to the Ombudsman to confirm all the agreed actions are completed within the three month timescale.
- I have completed the investigation and found the Council’s faults caused a significant injustice to Miss X.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman