The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr C complained about the way the Council responded when he became homeless. We did not find fault with the way the Council handled Mr C’s homelessness application. We found some fault with the way the Council handled Mr C’s complaint and restricted his contact. We also found fault with the Council for failing to consider its duty under the Equality Act 2010. Mr C did not suffer a significant injustice from the fault.
- Mr C complains about the way the Council have dealt with his homelessness and housing. He complains the Council:
- Forced him to move away from North Norfolk where he has a support network.
- Failed to support him to move back to North Norfolk.
- Housed him in unsuitable accommodation because it failed to consider his health condition and needs.
- Worked with the Police to silence him.
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 considered the information Mr C provided with his complaint. I made enquiries with the Council and considered its response along with relevant law and guidance.
- Mr C and the Council had the opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I carefully considered the comments I received before making my final decision.
What I found
Law and guidance
- The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 applies to all homelessness applications made since 3 April 2018. It introduced new homelessness prevention and relief duties which cover all homeless applicants, regardless of priority need or intentional homelessness.
- The Homelessness Code of Guidance is statutory guidance to councils on interpreting homelessness duties and carrying out their functions.
- If someone is homeless, or threatened with homelessness within 56 days, they can seek help from the housing authority (council). They must be eligible for assistance.
- Where the person is actually homeless, the relief duty may apply. The council will need to carry out an assessment and work with the person to develop a personalised housing plan (PHP).
- If a council has reason to believe a person may be:
- eligible; and
- in priority need.
then it must provide interim accommodation for them.
- When a council is satisfied an applicant is in priority need and is not intentionally homeless, the relief duty ends after 56 days. The council must then complete inquiries promptly to decide if any further duty is owed (the main housing duty).
- The Council may give notice to bring the relief duty to an end in certain circumstances.
- Homeless applicants may request a review within 21 days of being notified of the following decisions:
- Whether the conditions are met for the referral of their case to another housing authority.
- The suitability of accommodation offered to the applicant after a homelessness duty has been accepted (and the suitability of accommodation offered under section 200(3) and section 193). Applicants can request a review of the suitability of accommodation whether or not they have accepted the offer.
Council complaints policy
- The Council has a two-stage complaint process:
- Stage one - the investigation stage. It will acknowledge the complaint within five working days. It will fully investigate the complaint and provide a full explanation and resolution within 15 days.
- Stage two - the review stage. If the complaint is escalated to stage two it will provide a full response within 15 days or agree a new timescale.
The Equality Act 2010 and reasonable adjustments
- The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination arising from disability. Disability discrimination is when a person is treated less well or put at a disadvantage for a reason that relates to a disability in one of the situations set out in the Equality Act, one of those being when a person has contact with public bodies like a local council.
- The Equality Act 2010 says changes or adjustments should be made to enable people to receive the same services as others, to ensure they are not disadvantaged.
- The duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people is ‘anticipatory’. This means councils cannot wait until a disabled person wants to use its services but must think in advance about what disabled people with a range of impairments might reasonably need.
- Councils are not required to do more than it is reasonable for them to do. What is reasonable depends on several factors.
- Mr C had to leave his family home due to a domestic incident. He then breached a non- molestation order and was sentenced to time in prison. The non-molestation order said he could not return to the property so when he was released from prison he had nowhere to live.
- Mr C approached the Council as homeless in October 2019. The Council housed him temporarily while it considered his circumstances.
- The Council found Mr C was homeless and accepted its duty to house him. It placed him in temporary accommodation while it tried to find long term housing through the housing register.
- In April 2020 Mr C was matched with a property but he refused it because he would not remove his name for the tenancy at his previous address.
- In June 2020 the Council wrote to Mr C. It told him the non-molestation order prevented him returning to his previous address. It said he needed to accept his long-term housing option was to be rehoused through the housing list or private rental market.
- The Council warned Mr C about his abusive behaviour towards Council staff. It said it would only communicate with him by post or email.
- Mr C complained to the Council and it provided its final response in May 2021. It said:
- His actions meant he missed out on a suitable property in April 2020.
- His support needs were too high for social housing so housing through the register was no longer an option.
- The temporary accommodation would remain available, as long as he worked with his housing officer and adhered to his licence requirements. Otherwise, he risked becoming intentionally homeless.
- It was concerned Mr C’s behaviour was affecting his ability to secure social housing.
- It would support him to find privately rented accommodation.
- I have explained findings under the headings of the key themes I found during my investigation.
Mr C’s housing and homelessness
- I did not find fault with the way the Council responded when Mr C became homeless.
- The Council assessed Mr C’s circumstances and accepted its duty to house him. It housed him in temporary accommodation whilst it attempted to find permanent accommodation.
- Unfortunately, Mr C’s actions and behaviour meant he lost out on two suitable properties. It also limited the Council’s ability to find other suitable permanent accommodation.
- The Council explained what Mr C needed to do to secure permanent accommodation and warned him that his actions and behaviour were making it challenging to support him.
- There was also no evidence the Council worked with the Police to silence Mr C. Mr C agreed to the Council sharing information with other agencies as part of its homelessness enquiries. It made enquiries with other agencies, including the Police, to assist its decision making.
- I asked for a copy of Mr C’s personalised housing plan (PHP). The Council was unable to provide a copy and was unable to say whether one had been completed. This is fault. The Council has a duty to produce a PHP as part of the assessment process and this plan should be kept up to date. However, I do not think this caused Mr C a significant injustice. I do not think a PHP would have led to a different outcome for Mr C because of the challenges I have referred to above.
- I found fault with the Council for the way it handled Mr C’s complaint. It failed to provide evidence it followed its complaint procedure.
- The Council provided a final response to Mr C in May 2021. I asked for a copy of Mr C’s original complaint. It said:
“Unfortunately, it is unknown what specific complaint this refers to due to the number of contacts made by Mr C. We hope Mr C will be able to provide this specific letter”.
- The Council failed to understand Mr C’s complaint. It also failed to separate the complaint from the ongoing housing and communication/behaviour issues it was experiencing with Mr C.
- If the Council was unable to provide a copy of Mr C’s complaint or a summary of the complaint it investigated, I am unclear how it provided a final response. Its complaint handling was uncoordinated, and it failed to get control of the case. This could have been avoided if it had followed its procedure.
- I considered the potential injustice to Mr C. I do not think it caused significant injustice because it is unlikely it would have led to a different outcome.
The Equality Act 2010 and reasonable adjustments
- I found fault with the Council for the way it communicated with Mr C.
- Mr C said he has issues with communication for which he needs some reasonable adjustments.
- The Council said it was not aware of these issues until May 2021. I could not see any attempt by the Council in its communication with Mr C, assessments or standard letters to establish if Mr C needed any reasonable adjustments.
- The earliest reference I found to Mr C’s communication issues and needs was in 2019. This was not explored and was a missed opportunity to understand more and offer reasonable adjustments.
- It is concerning that the Council communicated with a vulnerable person for over two years and none of its processes or procedures identified additional communication needs or requirements. This appears to be a systemic issue rather than a case specific one.
- The Council should view this case as a learning opportunity to review how it meets its duties under the Equality Act 2010.
- I do not think the fault caused Mr C a significant injustice.
Restricting Mr C’s contact with the Council
- The Council restricted Mr C’s contact in June 2020. It told him:
“Due to this please take this as formal notification that we will no longer deal with your case over the phone and will only communicate by post or email”.
- I asked the Council to provide a copy of its policy for restricting contact with customers. I also asked it to explain how it considered Mr C’s needs when it made the decision. It referred to a section in its temporary accommodation conditions document:
“Do not harass, intimidate or abuse anybody in the neighbourhood of the property, anybody at our offices or anybody connected with the management of the property”.
- This is not a policy for the general restriction of contact with the Council. This would normally be found in a separate policy for addressing unacceptable complainant behaviour.
- The Council failed to consider Mr C’s needs when it placed the restriction on his contact. Councils are entitled to restrict contact if a complainant’s behaviour is unacceptable. However, it should be able to evidence its decision making.
- I considered the potential injustice to Mr C from this fault, but I do not think it caused a significant injustice. I cannot separate out the potential frustration or distress this fault may have caused. Mr C was experiencing such a variety of issues during this period that were caused by a variety of challenging life events. Mr C’s own behaviour also significantly contributed to the difficulties the Council experienced in its communication with Mr C.
- We welcome the Council’s response to our investigation findings. It introduced an unreasonable behaviour policy in August 2021. It said it will consider opportunities to ask residents about reasonable adjustments. This will hopefully prevent a repeat of the faults identified in this statement.
- I found fault with the Council. The fault did not cause Mr C a significant injustice.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate the suitability of the temporary accommodation. Mr C had the right to request a review of this decision.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman