The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council failed to assist him when he was street homeless in September 2021. The Council’s failure to accept a relief duty or to properly notify Mr X of its decision and his review rights amounts to fault. This fault has caused Mr X an injustice.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr X complained the Council failed to assist him when he was street homeless in September 2021.
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
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by Mr X;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
- Mr 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.
- 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)
- If a council’s enquiries determine an applicant has a local connection with another council, it can refer the case to the other council. Before making the referral, the notifying council must be satisfied the applicant is homeless and eligible for assistance and therefore owed a relief duty.
- The Homelessness Code of Guidance states that if the notifying authority has made a decision as to whether the applicant is eligible for assistance, is homeless or became homeless intentionally, the notified authority may only come to a different decision if they are satisfied the applicant’s circumstances have changed or new information has come to light that warrant a different decision.
What happened here
- Mr X presented to a neighbouring council as homeless in July 2021 following a fire where he was living. The neighbouring council placed Mr X in emergency accommodation while it assessed his application.
- On 20 August 2021 the neighbouring council made a referral to the Council. It was satisfied Mr X was eligible, homeless and had no local connection to its area. It considered Mr X had a local connection to the Council as his last settled accommodation was in Westminster.
- The Council acknowledged the referral and contacted Mr X to arrange an assessment. The Council notified the neighbouring council on 26 August 2021 that it had arranged an appointment for 3 September 2021. The neighbouring council then cancelled Mr X’s accommodation on 1 September 2021.
- Mr X states he repeatedly called the Council to ask for accommodation as he was now street homeless, but the Council did not assist him. The notes of the assessment on 3 September 2021 state Mr X was living at a property in Westminster from July 2020 to June 2021 and he could not provide the reason for leaving this address. There is no reference to accommodation damaged in the fire, or the emergency accommodation provided by the neighbouring council.
- The Council noted Mr X did not have any medical conditions or health issues. It did not consider he was in priority need and gave Mr X advice on private renting options. The Council also referred him to its partner service which provides advice and support to single homeless people.
- Mr X states he was street homeless for two days then made arrangements to travel abroad to find accommodation there.
- Mr X contacted the Council again in December 2021 to complain about the way it had dealt with his homeless application. He also asked the Council to assist him in returning to the UK and to provide accommodation. Mr X also complained to the Ombudsman. The Council informed us Mr X had not at that stage completed its complaints process, and that it would respond to Mr X’s complaint by 30 December 2021.
- The Council responded on 22 December 2021 and advised that as he was no longer resident in the UK it was unable to provide him with advice or assistance. It suggested that if Mr X returned to London and wanted advice, he contact the Council’s Housing Solutions Service.
- Mr X returned to the UK in February 2022 and approached the Council as homeless. The Council’s consideration of this latest application does not form part of my investigation.
- Mr X also contacted the Ombudsman again and has asked that we investigate his complaint about the failure to assist him in September 2021. In response to my enquiries the Council states that having received a referral from a neighbouring council it arranged to meet Mr X. Mr X attended the appointment on 3 September 2021 and the Council accepted a homeless application but did not accept a relief duty. Its notes do not record why it did not accept a duty, but the Council acknowledges this was an error.
- The Council referred Mr X for support in securing private sector accommodation. It states it did not provide Mr X with interim accommodation as it was not satisfied there was reason to believe he was in priority need.
- It is clear from the documentation that there have been errors in the way the Council dealt with Mr X’s homeless application. In referring Mr X to the Council the other council confirmed it had determined Mr X was eligible and homeless. There is no evidence the Council considered Mr X’s circumstances had changed or that further information had come to light since the other council made this decision. The Council should therefore have accepted a relief duty. The failure to do so amounts to fault.
- I also consider the Council’s failure to notify Mr X in writing of its decision not to accept a relief duty to be fault. There is no evidence the Council notified Mr X of its decision not to accept a relief duty or the reasons for it. Nor did it advise Mr X of his right to request a review of the decision.
- Having identified fault I must consider whether this has caused Mr X a significant injustice. Mr X asserts the Council should have provided him with interim accommodation as he was street homeless. The other council considered Mr X was in priority need as he lost his accommodation due to a fire. However there is no reference in the referral to Mr X being in priority need or to the property Mr X was staying in which was damaged by fire. Nor is there evidence Mr X advised the officer at the assessment on 3 September 2021 he was homeless due to the fire. The records show Mr X’s last settled address as a property in Westminster, rather than the fire damaged hostel. It notes Mr X could not recall why he left this address.
- Based on the evidence available I cannot say that but for the fault identified above, the Council would have provided Mr X with interim accommodation. The Council’s records show it considered whether Mr X was in priority need and determined he was not. Had the Council accepted a relief duty it is possible it would still have determined Mr X did not have priority need.
- However, had Mr X been properly notified of the Council’s decision and his rights to request a review, he would have had the opportunity to challenge these decisions. I consider this lost opportunity and the distress and uncertainty Mr X experienced amount to fault. In determining a remedy, I am mindful that Mr X left the county and sought support abroad almost immediately following the assessment on 3 September 2020.
- The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr X and pay him £100 in recognition of the distress and uncertainty he has experienced as a result of the failings in the way the Council dealt with his homeless application.
- The Council should take this action within one month of the final decision on this complaint.
- The Council’s failure to accept a relief duty or to properly notify Mr X of its decision and his review rights amounts to fault. This fault has caused Mr X an injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman