The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss Y complained about the Council’s response to her request for assistance when she was threatened with homelessness. We have found fault by the Council in failing to take reasonable action to help Miss Y remain in her accommodation, causing her injustice. The Council has agreed to remedy this by making a payment to reflect Miss Y’s distress, time and trouble, and service improvements.
- The complainant, who I am calling Miss Y, complains about the Council’s response to her request for assistance with her housing situation and the way it dealt with her application for a loan from the Homelessness Prevention Fund. She says the Council failed to:
- contact her for over three months in response to her request for help with her threatened homelessness;
- communicate promptly with her or her adviser about her loan application; and
- provide the funds as promised at the court hearing in September 2019.
- Miss Y says the delays and failures caused her a great deal of distress, time and trouble at a very difficult time for her. The Council were aware of her circumstances. She needed the funds to clear her arrears so a move her family needed for safety reasons could be arranged.
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 an organisation’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 spoke to Miss Y, made enquiries of the Council, and read the information Miss Y and the Council provided about the complaint.
- I invited Miss Y and the Council to comment on a draft version of this decision. I considered their responses before making a final decision.
What I found
What should have happened - the relevant law and guidance
The Council’s prevention duty
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (The Act) and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities (the Code) set out local housing authorities’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- A person is threatened with homelessness if, when asking for assistance from a council:
- They are likely to become homeless within 56 days; or
- They have been served with a valid section 21 notice which will expire within 56 days (Housing Act 1996, section 175(4) & (5))
- Section 195 of the Act creates the “prevention duty”. This requires a council to work with a person eligible for assistance and threatened with homelessness within 56 days to help prevent them from becoming homeless. It must take reasonable steps to help that person remain in their existing accommodation or secure alternative accommodation.
- Where a council is satisfied a person is eligible for assistance and homeless, or threatened with homelessness, it must assess their situation. It must try to agree a personalised housing plan (PHP) with that person, setting out what both parties will do to try to resolve the housing problem. The council must review and update the assessment and PHP as circumstances change. (Housing Act 1996, section 189A)
The Council’s Homelessness Prevention Fund Policy and Procedure
- This is a fund to facilitate one off repayable loans to residents threatened with homelessness. It is administered by the Council’s Housing Options Service. The policy says:
- A loan of between £1,000 and £3,000 and up to a maximum of £5,000 could be made, for example where an applicant is struggling to pay their rent due to circumstances beyond their control.
- An application will be assessed by a Housing Options officer, before being referred to the Housing Options lead officer. The lead officer will decide whether to approve the application.
- An application must be supported by information to show the applicant had genuine difficulty paying their rent. A loan will only be made if it can be demonstrated it will avert the crisis and the applicant’s situation is sustainable.
- Officers should make a record of their notes and details provided by the applicant. The applicant should sign request forms. If the lead officer rejects the request, recommendations should be made about further options and prevention work with the applicant.
- I have set out a summary of the key events below. It is not meant to show everything that happened.
Miss Y’s initial contact with Housing Options
- Miss Y is a Council tenant. She had significant rent arrears. The Council started court action and obtained a possession order.
- In June 2019 an independent housing adviser contacted Housing Options on Miss Y’s behalf about the court action and her threatened homelessness.
- In August a court hearing was adjourned to allow Miss Y time to review her situation.
- A Housing Options officer (officer A) contacted Miss Y in September. Officer A met with Miss Y on 17 September to discuss her situation. The Council says at this meeting:
- Miss Y told the officer she had rent arrears of £10,000 and was on the verge of losing her home
- The officer explained they would do what they could to help but warned Miss Y she might lose her home and be considered intentionally homeless
- Miss Y was asked to provide a statement explaining the background to the rent arrears.
- Miss Y said she had another court hearing and wanted the officer to support her with this.
September 2019 court hearing
- A further hearing took place on 24 September. The purpose of the hearing was to decide whether the possession order should be enforced (and Miss Y evicted from her home) or suspended with an arrangement for the repayment of the arrears.
- Officer A’s team leader (officer B) attended court with Miss Y, who was represented by a duty solicitor.
- Officer B and Miss Y have given different accounts of what was said at the hearing:
- Officer B says he told the court the Council would consider making Miss Y a loan from the Homelessness Prevention Fund (the Fund) but would need time to consider her application.
- Miss Y says officer B told the court the Council would give her £5,000 towards the arrears provided she kept up to date with the current rent.
- The duty solicitor’s report of the hearing confirmed officer B told the court it might be possible to make Miss Y a grant of up to £5,000 from the Fund to reduce the arrears and help prevent her becoming homeless. The court agreed to adjourn the hearing on condition Miss Y paid the current rent and £5 a week towards the arrears.
Following the hearing – September to December 2019
- Miss Y provided a statement explaining the background to the arrears in October.
- Miss Y’s housing adviser contacted Housing Options in November to explain her current difficulties paying her rent on time. Miss Y’s son had been missing for some months. He had now been found but was being looked after by Children’s Services for the time being. He was unable to return to his home area for reasons of safety. Miss Y had attended many appointments with the police and Children’s Services as well as visiting her son and had incurred significant travel costs.
- Miss Y also spoke to officer B in November about these difficulties. He told her they would continue with her application for assistance from the Fund.
- Officer A presented Miss Y’s application to Housing Options lead officer who rejected the request for the following reasons:
- Lack of consistency with rent payments
- Very high arrears which had not fallen below £10,000
- Miss Y had to be seen paying her current rent for the request to be approved.
- Miss Y says Housing Options told her the loan would not be paid because she was late with her rent.
- Miss Y’s housing adviser spoke to officers A and B. They said the offer of £5,000 was still on the table provided Miss Y could show she was being consistent with her rent payments.
- Children’s Services told Housing Options it could not decide Miss Y’s son should return to live with her unless she continued to have a home.
- Officer A re-presented Miss Y’s application to the lead officer in March 2020. This was again rejected for these reasons:
- Miss Y was responsible for failing to pay her rent
- The lead officer was not certain loans from the Fund were available to council tenants.
- On 23 March, officer A confirmed to Miss Y’s housing adviser:
- She told Miss Y on 12 March the loan application had been put forward twice and rejected by the lead officer on both occasions because of the high rent arrears, and concern arrears could accumulate again in future.
- Officer A had done what was required by applying for the loan. It was the lead officer’s decision whether to approve the request.
Housing Options’ further contact with Miss Y
- Miss Y and officer A had further discussions about her loan request. In May 2020, officer A told Miss Y:
- In March they had talked about the possibility of a lump sum payment to reduce the arrears by Miss Y, with help from her mother, as evidence she was serious about repayment.
- She thought the lead officer would expect to see a contribution from Miss Y, as a show of good faith, as well as a lump sum payment significantly reducing the arrears. And this would have to be made before she re-presented the case for a decision.
The court action
- Because of the issues caused by COVID 19, the government introduced laws in 2020, suspending evictions from homes. The court action to evict Miss Y was put on hold.
Miss Y’s complaint to the Council – July 2020
- Miss Y complained about Housing Options’ response to her threatened homelessness and the way it had dealt with the loan application. She said she had not asked for money. The officers had offered it to her and made false promises
The Council’s complaint response
- The Council said, in a reply of September 2020 (which it says was sent by post, but Miss Y says she did not receive):
- The officers told her in September 2019 any application for assistance through the Fund was dependent on her paying her current rent and making reasonable and consistent payments towards the rent arrears.
- They had made two applications, on Miss Y’s behalf, for a payment from the Fund. The requests had been rejected because of a lack of consistent payments and minimal reduction in the rent arrears
- In its stage two response in May 2021 the Council said:
- Its Fund policy did not exclude applications from council tenants.
- It accepted:
- there had been a delay in its response to Miss Y’s request for help in June 2019. It apologised for this delay.
- it had failed to provide Miss Y with written advice about her application for a loan and written explanations of the decisions rejecting her requests. It apologised for these failures.
- its stage one complaint response had not answered all her questions.
- It would provide her with written confirmation of the criteria for assistance from the Fund, reconsider her application and confirm the decision in writing.
- It would:
- In 2021, Children’s Services arranged to clear Miss Y’s arrears to prevent her family from becoming homeless. Miss Y is repaying this loan by monthly instalments.
- Miss Y complained to us in September 2021.
My findings – was there fault by the Council causing injustice?
- The Council has accepted, and I agree, the delay of three months between Miss Y’s request for assistance with her threatened homelessness in June 2019 and Housing Options’ contact with her in September, was fault.
- I consider this fault caused Miss Y injustice. The court had already made a possession order and there was a further court hearing in August. In addition to her concern about her son who was missing during this period, Miss Y was left to face the very real threat of losing her home, without any assistance from Housing Options.
Housing Option’s assessment of Miss Y’s situation
- My understanding is the Council accepted it owed Miss Y the prevention duty. A possession order had been made and she was threatened with homelessness within 56 days. My view is Housing Options failed to:
- tell Miss Y in writing the Council had accepted the prevention duty
- complete any contemporaneous records of its assessment of Miss Y’s circumstances at her appointment in September.
- complete a PHP, as required by the Housing Act, setting out what the Council and Miss Y would do to try to resolve her housing situation.
- take any reasonable action, as required by the Act, to help Miss Y remain in her home, other than the application for assistance from the Fund.
- work with the rent arrears team dealing with the court action, or Children’s Services to try resolve the rent arrears issues to prevent Miss Y losing her home.
- I consider the above failures were fault by the Council, causing Miss Y injustice.
- Miss Y was left in limbo by Housing Options, in the period from September 2019 until the court action was put on hold in June 2020, with no plan or information about the steps she and the Council would take to try to resolve her threatened homelessness. In my view this caused her significant additional worry and distress at what was already a very difficult time for her.
Miss Y’s application to the Homelessness Prevention Fund
- In my view, the duty solicitor’s report is the most reliable account of what was said at court, as this was made at the time of the hearing in September 2019. On this basis I do not consider the Council promised Miss Y it would make a payment of £5,000 from the Fund to reduce her arrears.
- But I consider the Council’s failure to provide Miss Y with written information about the criteria for assistance from the Fund, or the terms on which assistance, if approved, would be made was fault.
- I also consider the Council failed to follow its own procedure for applications to the Fund. There is no record of the officer’s notes or details provided by Miss Y in support of her application. There is no evidence the lead officer was provided with any assessment of the background to Miss Y’s rent arrears or her current circumstances. And the Council has accepted it did not provide Miss Y with timely written confirmation of, and reasons for, the decisions to reject her requests. My view is these failures were fault.
- This fault, in my view, caused Miss Y additional worry and distress, time and trouble. She and her advisers were left uncertain about the application process and outcome, and whether they should take other action to resolve the arrears issue.
What the Council has already done to remedy the injustice
- The Council apologised to Miss Y, in May 2021, for its failures.
- And it told us it has made the following service improvements:
- It is reviewing its Homelessness Prevention Fund policy. It will set out clearly in the policy the advice to be given to service users, how the policy should be implemented, and how applications should be recorded and considered.
- All officers have been informed that decisions rejecting loan applications and clear reasons for the refusal must be confirmed in writing.
- The process for allocating new homeless cases to officers has been amended. Cases are now allocated by team leaders within 24 hours of receipt.
- To remedy the injustice caused by the above faults, and within four weeks from the date of our final decision, the Council has agreed to:
- pay Miss Y £300 to recognise the additional worry and distress, time and trouble its failures caused her from June 2019 to June 2020, while she was facing the threat of eviction, and the delay in responding fully to her complaint.
- This is a symbolic amount in line with our published guidance on remedies.
- And within three months from the date of our final decision, the Council has agreed to:
- provide an update on the review of its Homeless Prevention Fund policy and guidance issued to Housing Options officers about the implementation of the policy.
- review, and remind Housing Options officers about, its guidance on the Council’s prevention duty, the action the Council is required to take to comply with this duty and records which should be kept about the action taken.
- The Council should provide us with evidence it has competed the above actions
- I have found fault by the Council causing injustice. I have completed my investigation on the basis the above action is a suitable way to remedy the injustice.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman