London Borough of Merton (21 013 957)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 27 Jun 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complained about the way the Council dealt with her homelessness application and its failure to provide suitable temporary accommodation. The errors in the way the Council dealt with Miss X’s homeless application amount to fault. This fault has caused Miss X an injustice.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss X complained about the way the Council dealt with her homelessness application. She complained the Council failed to properly consider her circumstances, did not provided temporary accommodation when she initially approached the Council and then provided unsuitable accommodation which was unaffordable or in an area that placed her at risk.
  2. In addition Miss X complained the Council delayed in dealing with her application to join the housing register which meant there was a 10 month period when she was unable to bid on properties.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • 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.

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What I found


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  4. If a council is satisfied someone is homeless and eligible for assistance it must take reasonable steps to secure suitable accommodation for them. This is known as the council’s relief duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
  5. A council must secure interim accommodation for applicants if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)

What happened here

  1. Miss X presented to the Council as homeless in early January 2020. She was 17 years old and advised the Council she could no longer stay at her mother’s address. Miss X said she had been staying with a friend for a couple of days but could not stay there indefinitely.
  2. The Council accepted a prevention duty and made a referral to Children’s Services. A social worker from Children’s services and a housing officer then met with Miss X in early February 2020. The records of this meeting note Miss X stated she was staying with a family friend and their child in a one bedroom property but could only stay there until 28 February 2020. At this point she would have nowhere to live. Miss X’s grandmother had a three bedroom property but Miss X could not stay with her grandmother as both her uncles also lived there.
  3. Children’s services records state Miss X informed them in early April 2020 that her grandmother had agreed she could stay with her until she turned 18.
  4. Miss X returned to the Council on her 18th birthday and the Council accepted a relief duty. The Council provided temporary accommodation at a B&B. On 17 August 2020 Miss X contacted the Council to report she was being harassed by another resident. The Council investigated and moved Miss X to self- contained accommodation on 24 August 2020.
  5. Miss X also applied to join the housing register in early August 2020. The Council did not process this application.
  6. In October 2020 the Council offered Miss X an assured shorthold tenancy on a property, Property 1. Miss X states the housing officer telephoned her to inform her of the offer and that they had terminated her temporary accommodation. She states she felt compelled to accept the property rather than be homeless, even though it was not suitable.
  7. The Council then wrote to Miss X in January 2021 discharging the relief duty as Miss X had accepted a ‘final accommodation offer’. The letter also advised Miss X of her right to review this decision. Miss X responded the same day to request a review. She asserted the Council was aware she had a history of domestic abuse and violence in the area and had not taken account of this when offering her Property 1. Miss X also stated that when she had told the housing officer she did not want to accept Property 1 she was not given sufficient time and space to understand her options. The Council cancelled her temporary accommodation before she had accepted Property 1 and Miss X stated the officer told her if she declined Property 1 she would be homeless, without any further support from the Council.
  8. Miss X also asserted the Council was aware of her long term mental ill health. She stated her mental health had deteriorated since moving to property 1 and she was seeking additional therapy and her medication had increased significantly. In addition, Miss X stated she was struggling to afford the property as she was not eligible for any benefits.
  9. Miss X contacted the Council again a couple of days later as she was concerned her abusers were aware she had returned to the area and were harassing her. She reported they were attempting to break in and deface her property and were cause a disturbance at unsociable hours. Miss X declined to complete a risk assessment as she considered this would aggravate the situation.
  10. In April 2021 Miss X made a formal complaint as the Council had failed to action her application to join the housing register. Miss X asserted she should have an overriding medical priority on the housing register and had lost the opportunity to bid on properties for the last 10 months. She considered that but for the Council’s failings could have secured a property.
  11. The Council responded in May 2021 and acknowledged it had not processed her housing application in August 2020. It apologised for this error and confirmed her application would now be processed and back dated to the date she submitted it. The Council advised it was unable to confirm Miss X’s priority on the housing register as this would be dependent on the outcome of her review request. It also noted Miss X’s legal representative had submitted new medical evidence which would be used to determine whether she met the criteria for overriding medical priority.
  12. Miss X was not satisfied by the Council’s response and in May 2021 asked for her complaint to be reviewed. In addition to her complaint about the delay in processing her application to join the housing register she also complained the Council had:
    • Delayed in responding to her complaint about the placement in a B&B in August 2020;
    • Delayed in releasing her housing file under a subject access request in March 2021; and
    • Failed to inform her of her rights of review.
  13. On the same day Miss X’s legal representative made further submissions in support of her review request. They asserted there were failings in the Council’s decision making and that it had failed to comply with the relevant legislation. Miss X’s representatives did not consider the offer of accommodation at Property 1 was valid as the Council had not put the offer of accommodation in writing or explained:
    • it was a final offer;
    • the consequences of what would happen if Miss X accepted or refused the offer; or
    • the right to request a review of the suitability of the offer.
  14. They asserted the Council had also failed to promptly give Mis X notice it was ending the relief duty. In addition they questioned the suitability of Property 1 based on its location and the risk of violence to Miss X; the detrimental impact on Miss X’s mental health and wellbeing; and the affordability.
  15. The Council completed its review and on 26 May 2021 confirmed it would overturn the decision to end the relief duty and that as a consequence the Council owed Miss X the full housing duty. Miss X moved to alternative temporary accommodation on 3 June 2021.
  16. It then responded to Miss X’s complaint on 17 June 2021. The Council partially upheld Miss X’s complaint about its actions in August 2020. It acknowledged that although Miss X had informed the Council she was being harassed on 15 August 2020, it did not raise this with the accommodation provider until 24 August 2020. The Council apologised for this delay and noted Miss X moved to self-contained accommodation on 24 August 2020. It also noted the staff at the B&B had dealt with Miss X’s complaint on 15 August 2020 and had spoken to Miss X who confirmed she was ok.
  17. The Council could not explain why Miss X’s application to join the housing register was not processed and put this down to human error, for which it apologised. It noted that following the statutory review the Council now intended to make a direct offer of accommodation as soon as a suitable property became available. The Council considered this was a suitable remedy as even if Miss X had been able to bid on properties sooner it was unlikely she would have been successful. It stated there would have been other bidders with a higher priority/ more points.
  18. The Council accepted the failure to give Miss X written notice that accepting the offer of Property 1 would end the relief duty or advise of her right to ask for a review was fault. The Council has since withdrawn its decision to end the relief duty.
  19. Although the Council could not consider the suitability of Property 1 as part of the complaints process, it confirmed it would take this into consideration when assessing an appropriate remedy. Miss X had now moved to alternative temporary accommodation and would receive a direct offer of permanent social housing as soon as possible. The Council was satisfied the affordability of Property 1 was considered. It noted the rent was £167.06 per week and Miss X received £144.19 housing benefit each week, while her weekly income was £272.84.
  20. In recognition of the Council’s failings and the distress this caused Miss X, the Council offered to pay Miss X £1050 in addition to a direct offer of social housing. It also confirmed it would make service improvements by reminding staff of the correct procedures to follow when processing applications to join the housing register and when making offers of accommodation and discharging homeless duties.
  21. Miss X accepted the Council’s offer on 28 June 2021 and moved into permanent accommodation on 22 July 2021. Miss X has made a complaint about disrepair at this property to the Housing Ombudsman. She has also asked us to investigate her complaints about the way the Council dealt with her homelessness application.
  22. In response to my enquiries the Council notes it has admitted fault and offered a remedy which Miss X accepted.


  1. It is clear from the documentation there has been fault in the way it has dealt with Miss X’s homeless application. The Council accepts there were three procedural failures:
    • not processing Miss X’s housing application when she submitted it in August 2020;
    • not telling Miss X of her rights to appeal the Council’s decision to discharge its homeless duties; and
    • not telling Miss X of her rights to request a review of the suitability of her accommodation.
  2. It has also accepted and apologised for the delay in responding to Miss X’s reports of harassment in August 2020.
  3. In addition to these failings, I also consider the Council was at fault in not offering or providing Miss X with temporary accommodation when she presented as homeless in January 2020. The Council states that when Miss X initially presented as homeless, she told Children’s Services that she would stay with her grandmother until she was 18 and would then approach housing in her own right. It states she was placed in temporary accommodation on her 18th birthday and does not consider a duty to accommodate Miss X arose until this date.
  4. However the documentation provided does not support this. The housing officer’s notes of 2 January 2020 state Miss X had been sleeping at a friend’s house for two days but could not stay there an unspecified amount to of time. Subsequent notes record that Miss X’s mother confirmed she could not return home and that Miss X had provided letters from her friend and grandmother. Notes for 7 February 2020 specifically record that Miss X cannot stay with her grandmother.
  5. Similarly, the Children’s Services’ assessment records that in February 2020 Miss X was staying with a friend and their child in a one bedroom flat. According to the Council’s records, it is not until 9 April 2020 that Miss X informed the Council that her grandmother had agreed she could stay with her until she is 18.
  6. Given Miss X’s age, mental ill-health and the fact she was fleeing abuse, I consider the Council was at fault in not properly considering and documenting whether it had a duty to accommodate Miss X in January 2020.
  7. The Council’s review of its decision to end the relief duty does not refer to the suitability of Property 1 as it overturned the decision based on procedural irregularities. The complaint response addresses the issue of affordability but does not consider location and the risk of violence to Miss X or the detrimental impact on Miss X’s mental health and wellbeing. I consider it more likely than not that had it properly considered Miss X’s circumstances, the Council would have concluded Property 1 was unsuitable accommodation.
  8. Having identified fault I must consider whether this has caused Miss X a significant injustice and whether the remedy the Council has already provided is sufficient to address this. I recognise that the Council has made Miss X a direct offer of accommodation, made a payment to acknowledge Miss X’s distress and has taken steps to improve its service. This is to be welcomed, but I do not consider it sufficient.
  9. The Ombudsman has published guidance to explain how we calculate remedies for people who have suffered injustice as a result of fault by a council. Our primary aim is to put people back in the position they would have been in if the fault by the Council had not occurred.
  10. Where a complainant has been deprived of suitable accommodation during what would inevitably have been a stressful period in life we may recommend the Council makes a symbolic payment to acknowledge their distress, hardship and inconvenience. We usually recommend a payment of between £150 and £300 per month, but may recommend a higher monthly amount where the injustice is exceptional or particularly severe.
  11. In determining an appropriate level we will take account of factors such as:
    • The size of the accommodation – are there enough rooms for the household?;
    • Are toileting and bathing facilities private or shared;
    • The age of the household members; and
    • Any disabilities or vulnerabilities of the household members
  12. In this instance a payment at the top end of the range to be appropriate. I consider Miss X was in unsuitable accommodation whilst sofa surfing between January and April 2020; at the B&B in August 2020 and at Property 1 from November 2020 to June 2021. This is a total of 11 months.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed to pay Miss X £3,300 in recognition of the distress and hardship she experienced while in unsuitable accommodation. As the Council has already made a payment to Miss X of £1050, this should be off set and the Council should pay the balance of £2,250.
  2. The Council has also agreed to pay Miss X £200 in recognition of her distress and tome and trouble in pursuing this matter.
  3. The Council should take this action within one month of the final decision on this complaint.

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Final decision

  1. The errors in the way the Council dealt with Miss X’s homeless application amount to fault. This fault has caused Miss X an injustice.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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