The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss X complained there were errors in the way the Council dealt with her homelessness application and delays in providing her with suitable temporary accommodation. The delays and failings in the way the Council dealt with Miss X’s homelessness application amount to fault. This fault has caused Miss X an injustice.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss X complained there were errors in the way the Council dealt with her homelessness application and delays in providing her with suitable temporary accommodation. Miss X complains the Council failed to respond to her correspondence or queries and wrongly determined she was not in priority need as it did not properly consider her medical evidence.
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
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by Miss X;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
- discussed the issues with Miss X;
- Miss X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- If a council has ‘reason to believe’ someone may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, it must take a homelessness application and make enquiries to establish if the council has a duty to assist them. The threshold for taking an application is low. The person does not have to complete a specific form or approach a particular council department. (Housing Act 1996, section 184 and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 6.2 and 18.5)
- Councils should work with the person to identify practical and reasonable steps for the council and the person to take to help them keep or find suitable accommodation. These steps must be tailored to the household and provided to the person in a personalised housing plan (PHP). The PHP must be kept under review and updated as circumstances change. (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)
- If a council is satisfied someone is threatened with homelessness and eligible for assistance it must take reasonable steps to secure that accommodation does not stop being available for their occupation. This is known as the council’s prevention duty. (Housing Act 1996, Section 195)
- If a council is satisfied someone is homeless and eligible for assistance it must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation for them. This is known as the council’s relief duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
- A council must secure interim accommodation for applicants and their household if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
- The law says councils must ensure all accommodation provided to homeless applicants is suitable for the needs of the applicant and members of his or her household. This duty applies to interim accommodation and accommodation provided under the main homelessness duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 206 and (from 3 April 2018) Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.2)
What happened here
- Miss X presented as homeless on 26 February 2019 and the Council accepted a relief duty as it believed she was eligible and homeless. The Council’s assessment notes state Miss X was not in priority need, but as she had nowhere to stay the Council sought a place for her at a refuge. The Council also contacted the police who confirmed it would not be safe for Miss X to return to her previous property.
- The Council’s medical advisor considered Miss X’s medical conditions and made no recommendations on medical grounds. The Council states it produced a relief duty letter on 28 February 2019. This letter advises Miss X the Council had accepted a duty to help her secure accommodation. It also had a duty to provide a written assessment of her circumstances and support needs, and a PHP.
- The Council arranged an appointment for 1 April 2019 to complete a PHP. Miss X did not attend this appointment as she did not receive notification. The meeting was rearranged for 13 May 2019, at which point the Council completed a PHP. The Council’s notes of this meeting state that Miss X was still at the refuge but felt under threat there. Miss X provided details of a change in her medication which the Council agreed to present to the medical advisor for their view on whether this affected Miss X’s non priority need status. The medical advisor made no housing recommendations.
- Miss X contacted the Council again in August 2019 with a further change in medication and to raise concerns about her upcoming eviction from the refuge. The medical advisor reviewed Miss X’s medial conditions and medication on 1 August 2019 and determined her medical issues did not make her significantly vulnerable. They subsequently confirmed they would continue to make no housing recommendations.
- When Miss X was evicted form the refuge on 5 August 2019 she attended the Council offices where officers reiterated that as she was not in priority need it would not offer her any accommodation. The Council would only offer advice on seeking alternatives. Miss X states that as she had nowhere else to go, she secretly slept at her work place.
- On 11 September Miss X provided further information about a change in her medication. The Council consulted the medical adviser who confirmed their previous advice. They then reconfirmed their view on 17 and 19 September 2019.
- Miss X sought advice from a homelessness charity who contacted the Council on her behalf in October 2019. The charity asserted Miss X had provided sufficient evidence to show she was eligible, homeless and in priority need. It raised concerns about the delays in making a decision on Miss X’s case asked the Council to provide Miss X with interim accommodation.
- In late October 2019 Miss X told the Council she was due to have surgery. The Council consulted the medical advisor who recommended the Council provide short term accommodation at the time of the operation.
- The Council provided interim accommodation in a B&B on 11 November 2019. Miss X raised concerns about the suitability of the temporary accommodation given her past experiences. The Council told Miss X it considered the accommodation was suitable and asked her to provide any further information or evidence she wanted the Council to consider.
- On 20 December 2019 the Council accepted a full housing duty to Miss X. The Council determined Miss X was in priority need as she was fleeing domestic violence. Its records note that this decision is contrary to the medical advisor’s recommendations.
- Miss X maintained the B&B accommodation was unsuitable and did not stay there. Instead, she sofa surfed with friends.
- The Council offered Miss X alternative temporary accommodation in February 2020. Miss X states she understood the property would be ready within two weeks, however the property was not ready for Miss X to move into until late April 2020. Miss X is still in this accommodation, which she states is suitable for her needs.
- In late January 2020 Miss X made a formal complaint about the way the Council had dealt with her homelessness application. She complained officers had not responded to her emails and had been rude and unpleasant when speaking with her. She also complained about the delay in accepting she had priority need and in informing her of its decisions.
- Miss X asserted the temporary accommodation provided at a B&B was unsuitable and she was unable to stay there. She was unhappy the Council has not reviewed the suitability and had not provided alterative accommodation.
- The Council responded in March 2020 and set out the action it had taken since Miss X presented as homeless. It noted it had accepted a relief duty and written to her on 28 February 2019 explaining it would take reasonable steps to relieve her homelessness. While the relief duty would ordinarily end after 56 days the Council decided to extend the relief duty.
- The Council stated it did not provide temporary accommodation as it did not have reason to believe Miss X was in priority need. It had submitted medical information to its medical advisor throughout her application. The medical advisor did not recommend providing temporary accommodation until October 2019 when Miss X provided details of proposed surgery.
- Miss X was not satisfied by the Council’s response and in October 2020 asked for her complaint to be escalated to the next stage of the complaints procedure. In its response the Council noted that although it had produced a relief duty letter on 28 February 2019, it did not issue this letter until 31 October 2019. It apologised and confirmed Miss X’s registration on the homeless queue would be backdated to 23 April 2019, that is 56 days after the date of her application.
- In relation to Miss X’s concerns about the way council officers had treated her, the Council confirmed it would use her comments to provide feedback and training for officers across the service.
- As Miss X remained dissatisfied, in April 2021 she asked the Council to consider her complaint at stage three of its process. The Council responded on 18 May 2021 and noted it had upheld Miss X’s complaint at stage two of the process. It had accepted the Council had not administered her homelessness application in a timely manner but had backdated her application to ensure she was in the correct position in the homeless re-housing queue. The Council did not consider Miss X had provided any new information which would lead the Council to reach a different decision.
- In response to my enquiries the Council states it is regrettable that it took longer than usual to assess Miss X’s circumstances and to provide interim accommodation. The Council has reiterated it has acted to remedy the delay by backdating Miss X’s housing register application so that there is no delay in a final suitable offer of accommodation being made in due course.
- Whilst it acknowledges there were delays to timelines set by the Homelessness Reduction Act, it notes Miss was accommodated at the refuge for a significant period of the time taken to assess her application. The Council states it did not provide interim accommodation when Miss X was evicted from the refuge as it was not satisfied there was reason to believe she met the threshold. It changed its view following further assessment and provided emergency accommodation at a B&B, and offered alternative suitable accommodation at the earliest opportunity
- The Council states Miss X did not request a statutory review of the suitability of accommodation following the Council’s acceptance of the main housing duty.
- The Council acknowledges it did not assess Miss X’s application with the sensitive consideration it should have given that she lost her accommodation due to fleeing violence. Since Miss X’s application the Council states it has provided all staff in the Housing Services division with additional, specific training in relation to domestic abuse. It states there has been a quantifiable culture shift regarding how victims of domestic abuse are dealt with when approaching the Council.
- In addition to the apology and backdating of Miss X’s housing register application, to acknowledge the difficulties Miss X experienced, the Council has offered to pay her £2000.
- It is clear from the documentation that there have been failings in the way the Council dealt with Miss X’s homelessness application. There is confusion regarding when it accepted a relief duty and its decision to extend rather than end the duty after 56 days. The Council’s response to Miss X’s complaint states it accepted a duty in February 2019 but did not issue a decision letter until October 2019. However, the timeline provided with the Council’s response to my enquiries states it accepted a relief duty on 31 October 2019.
- Had the Council accepted a relief duty on 28 February 2019 the 56 days would have ended 23 April 2019. There is no evidence the Council informed Miss X of this, or of its decision to extend the duty beyond the 56 days.
- The Council’s delays and failings in its communication with Miss X amount to fault
- The records show the Council repeatedly sought its medical advisor’s opinion on Miss X’s medical conditions. On each occasion, until Miss X notified the Council of her surgery, the medical advisor made no housing recommendations. However, there is no evidence the Council considered whether Miss X was in priority need having lost her accommodation due to fleeing domestic violence.
- The Council acknowledges it did not afford Miss X’s circumstances the sensitive consideration it should have. The failure to properly consider Miss X’s circumstances amount to fault.
- The delay in providing suitable temporary accommodation also amounts to fault. The Council states Miss X did not request a statutory review of the suitability of the B&B accommodation after it accepted a main housing duty to her in December 2019. Miss X had however raised concerns about the suitability of the accommodation prior to that and by December 2019 was no longer staying in the accommodation. Miss X‘s complaint in January 2020 also raises concerns about the suitability and the Council’s failure to carry out a review. The Council has not provided any evidence of why it considered the B&B accommodation was suitable or how it considered Miss X’s concerns about the mixed sex, non-secure accommodation given her experience of gender based violence.
- The Council states it provided alternative temporary accommodation at the earliest opportunity. But the records show that while it offered Miss X temporary accommodation in February 2020, the property was not available for Miss X to move into for a further two months.
- Having identified fault, I must consider whether this has caused Miss X a significant injustice. The Council’s failure to properly consider Miss X’s circumstances and provide temporary accommodation when she moved out of the refuge in August 2019 left Miss X without any form of accommodation. She slept at her work place and sofa surfed with friends until April 2020 when the Council provided suitable temporary accommodation. This will have caused Miss X additional distress and anxiety at what was already a difficult time.
- The Council has taken action to redress the injustice to Miss X by apologising and backdating her housing register application. It has also offered to pay her £2000. This is in line with our guidance on remedies and is an appropriate offer.
- In addition, the Council has provided Housing Services staff with specific training in relation to domestic abuse. It has taken made significant changes to the way it deals with victims of domestic abuse who approach the Council for assistance and has been awarded Domestic Abuse Housing Accreditation. These service improvements are to be welcomed.
- The Council has agreed to pay Miss X £2,000 to recognise the difficulties and distress and anxiety she experienced as a result of the delays and failings in the way the Council dealt with her homelessness application
- The Council should take this action within one month of the final decision on this complaint.
- The delays and failings in the way the Council dealt with her homelessness application amount to fault. This fault has caused Miss X an injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman