Liverpool City Council (22 004 665)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 Apr 2023

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms Y complains on behalf of Ms X that the Council failed to accept a valid homeless approach, properly progress Ms X’s application, or assign the correct housing priority. She also complains about the Council’s communication and the housing advice it provided. Ms Y says this led to Ms X being homeless and in unsuitable accommodation for longer than she would otherwise have been, at a time when she was particularly vulnerable. We have found the Council at fault. We have made recommendations to remedy the injustice caused.

The complaint

  1. Ms Y complains about how the Council handled Ms X’s homelessness application. Ms Y says the Council:
      1. failed to accept Ms X’s valid approach as homeless;
      2. failed to progress her application in line with procedure and legislation;
      3. failed to properly communicate with her about her homelessness;
      4. provided incorrect housing advice; and
      5. wrongly prioritised Ms X’s housing application.
  2. Ms Y says Ms X was homeless for longer than she would have been and spent more time in unsuitable temporary accommodation because of the Council’s actions. Ms Y says this caused Ms X distress, uncertainty and financial hardship.

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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. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered information provided by Ms Y on Ms X’s behalf.
  2. I considered the Council’s responses to my enquiries.
  3. Ms Y, Ms X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on a draft version of this decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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Relevant legislation, guidance and policy

Duty to provide Advisory Services

  1. Councils must provide to anyone in their district information and advice free of charge on:
    • preventing homelessness;
    • securing accommodation when homeless;
    • the rights of people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness;
    • the duties of the authority;
    • any help that is available from the authority or anyone else, for people in the council’s district who are homeless or may become homeless (whether or not they are threatened with homelessness), and
    • how to access that help.


  1. If a council has ‘reason to believe’ someone may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, it must take a homelessness application and make inquiries. 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)


  1. Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. The Code of Guidance says, rather than advise the applicant to return when homelessness is more imminent, the housing authority may wish to accept a prevention duty and begin to take reasonable steps to prevent homelessness.

The prevention duty

  1. If councils are satisfied applicants are threatened with homelessness and eligible for assistance, they must help them to secure accommodation that does not stop being available for their occupation. In deciding what steps they are to take, councils must have regard to their assessments of the applicants’ cases. (Housing Act 1996, section 195)

The relief duty

  1. Councils must take reasonable steps to help to secure suitable accommodation for any eligible homeless person. When a council decides this duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)

The main homelessness duty

  1. If a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need, the council has a duty to secure accommodation that is available for their occupation (unless it refers the application to another housing authority under section 198). But councils will not owe the main housing duty to applicants who have turned down a suitable final accommodation offer or a Housing Act Part 6 offer made during the relief stage, or if a council has given them notice under section 193B(2) due to their deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate. (Housing Act 1996, section 193 and Homelessness Code of Guidance 15.39)

Decision letters

  1. After completing inquiries, the council must give the applicant a decision in writing. If it is an adverse decision, the letter must fully explain the reasons. All letters must include information about the right to request a review and the timescale for doing so. (Housing Act 1996, section 184, from 3 April 2018 Homelessness Code of Guidance 18.32 and 18.33)

Allocations scheme

  1. Every local housing authority must publish an allocations scheme that sets out how it prioritises applicants, and its procedures for allocating housing.  All allocations must be made in strict accordance with the published scheme. (Housing Act 1996, section 166A(1) & (14))
  2. Relevant to this complaint, the Council’s published allocation scheme says there are six priority bands, with priority Band A being the highest. The criteria for Band A confirms it includes applicants accepted as unintentionally homeless and who are assessed to have priority need.

Complaint procedure

  1. The Council operates a two-stage complaints procedure. The procedure says the Council will respond to stage one complaints within 10 working days. If a complainant escalates to stage two of the procedure, the Council says it will respond within a maximum of 12 weeks.

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What I found

Summary of events

  1. Below is an overview of the key events leading to this investigation. It is not an exhaustive chronology of every interaction between parties. Where necessary, I have expanded on some of these events in the analysis section of this decision statement.
  2. In early 2021, Ms X approached the Council as being homeless. In March, Ms X told the Council:
      1. she was homeless and was sleeping on sofas where she could.
      2. her 10-month-old child, B, was staying with her former partner because of Ms X’s homelessness. Being separated from B caused Ms X distress.
  3. The Council’s records show it told Ms X to apply to join the housing register so she could bid for properties. It also told Ms X to register with local lettings agents. The Council says it told Ms X to be proactive, make her housing application and explore private rented options. The Council also made some general enquiries to understand whether Ms X had somewhere she could stay.
  4. Ms X contacted the Council three times in March 2021 for an update and assistance, but did not receive a substantive response.
  5. In July 2021, Ms X contacted the Council again. Ms X said she had paid off her arrears with her previous landlord and needed help and advice. Ms X told the Council she was sofa-surfing with B, who was now aged one. Ms X said she could not register for choice-based letting, as she did not have a fixed address. Ms X did not receive a substantive response from the Council.
  6. In August 2021, Ms X contacted the Council eight times by email and by phone. Ms X said she was pregnant, homeless with a one-year-old child, and needed help securing somewhere to live. Ms Y says Ms X made clear the extent of her distress and that she was struggling to cope. The Council did not respond to Ms X.
  7. In September 2021, Ms Y says Ms X emailed the Council to explain her situation and ask for help, so she was not homeless with two young children. Ms Y says the Council did not respond to Ms X.
  8. In October 2021, Ms X contacted the Council. Ms X explained she now needed urgent support as she was about to become street homeless.
  9. The Council secured temporary accommodation for Ms X on 5 October 2021. The Council says it assessed Ms X’s homelessness and housing needs at this point.
  10. Ms X’s former landlord told the Council she still had arrears outstanding from her former tenancy. The Council told Ms X that because there was still a debt and no payment plan, getting social housing would be difficult. The Council said the focus would be on accommodation in the private rented sector. It said Ms X should contact her former landlord to address the outstanding arrears.
  11. At the end of October 2021, the Council confirmed Ms X’s former landlord had in fact written off her historic arrears earlier in the year. It began to explore re-housing options.
  12. In November 2021, the Council’s internal records show it updated Ms X’s housing priority, placing her in priority Band A within its local allocation area. Ms Y says Ms X sought updates about what was happening and then sought intervention from her Member of Parliament (MP).
  13. On 20 December 2021, Ms Y contacted the Council for an update on Ms X’s behalf. On 21 December 2021, the Council sent Ms X two letters:
      1. A decision letter confirming the Council accepted Ms X was homeless and eligible for assistance. The Council said it had completed a full assessment of need and owed Ms X the relief duty for the next 56 days.
      2. Another decision letter confirming the Council accepted a main housing duty for Ms X, having received a homeless application on 4 October 2021. The Council said the main housing duty commenced from 1 December 2021 and Ms X was in priority Band A from this date.
  14. Both letters provided Ms X with a right of review to these decisions.
  15. Ms Y wrote to the Council on Ms X’s behalf, raising concerns about how the Council had handled Ms X’s case since March 2021. She provided a detailed timeline of events and outlined the impact on Ms X and B. Ms Y asked the Council to backdate Ms X’s registration date.
  16. On 5 January 2022, Ms Y made a detailed complaint on Ms X’s behalf. Ms Y explained where she believed the Council had failed to adhere to its duties and what the impact had been on Ms X and B. Ms Y said the Council should have accepted Ms X as homeless in March 2021 and granted the relief duty at that point. She said the Council should then have granted the main housing duty in April 2021. Ms Y asked the Council to backdate Ms X’s registration and priority to 24 April 2021, to put Ms X in the position Ms Y said she should have been in throughout.
  17. In January and February 2022, the Council contacted Ms X by phone. The Council’s notes say it discussed the bidding system, an offer of accommodation, the relief duty and the main housing duty. Ms X asked the Council to backdate her priority. Internal records show the Council enquiring whether it could take this action.
  18. On the 4 February 2022, the Council made an offer of permanent accommodation to Ms X via a decision through its housing panel. Ms X accepted this accommodation. The Council’s records show that, as of the 17 February 2022, it expected this property would be ready in three weeks. At the end of February, the landlord confirmed there would be a delay, as it needed to carry out work inside. The landlord said it had no other properties available and Ms X may need to be referred back to the housing panel, depending on how long the repairs would take.
  19. The Council responded to Ms Y’s complaint on the 3 March 2022. It accepted delays and a failure to progress Ms X’s initial approach in March 2021, as well as other administrative faults. It provided some details about how it handled Ms X’s application. It said it would be prepared to backdate Ms X’s registration and priority to March 2021 if she decided not to accept the property because of the delays. It offered an apology. It sought updates on when the property would be ready for Ms X.
  20. Ms Y escalated Ms X’s complaint. She recognised the Council’s apology, but did not feel the Council had accepted the full extent of its failings and the impact on Ms X. Ms Y sought an improved outcome for Ms X, with a financial remedy in recognition of Ms X being left in unsuitable accommodation, while being vulnerable as she was pregnant and had a young child.
  21. At the end of March 2022, the property was ready and Ms X received the keys. The Council’s records confirm it formally discharged its housing duty towards Ms X in April 2022, on the basis she had been rehoused. Ms Y told me Ms X received the keys to the property on the day she went into labour.
  22. In July 2022, Ms Y referred Ms X’s complaint to the Ombudsman on her behalf, as she had not received a response to her escalated complaint from the Council.
  23. The Council provided its stage two complaint response in December 2022. It said it had decided Ms X did not meet eligibility criteria to be considered homeless when she first approached, but accepted it had not explained this or carried out a homelessness assessment. It said it should have completed an assessment and worked with Ms X to prevent any risk of homelessness.


Complaint the Council failed to accept Ms X’s valid approach as homeless

  1. Ms X clearly stated she was sofa-surfing and separated from her 10-month-old child during her first approach in March 2021. Despite this, the Council did not obtain sufficient information to assess Ms X’s housing circumstances, or formally decide whether it owed Ms X the prevention or relief housing duties. I have found the Council at fault for this.
  2. The Council then had further multiple opportunities, between July and October, to respond to Ms X’s requests for assistance. Ms X contacted the Council approximately ten times in this period. The Council did not provide any substantive reply to these contacts, make any enquiries, or assess Ms X’s housing circumstances. I have found the Council at fault for not assessing Ms X’s housing circumstances during this period and deciding if it owed her a housing duty.
  3. I asked the Council whether it accepted it should have provided the housing relief duty to Ms X in March 2021 and the main housing duty in April 2021, as set out by Ms Y. The Council said it could not say, because it had not carried out an assessment at the time. It accepted it should have carried out a homelessness assessment when Ms X first approached the Council. It said it later offered to backdate Ms X’s housing registration date and priority as a goodwill gesture because of this, but Ms X went on to secure permanent accommodation in any case.
  4. In its final complaint response, the Council said it decided in March 2021 Ms X did not meet the criteria to be considered homeless, but did not inform Ms X of this. I am unclear how the Council could have concluded Ms X was not homeless, given it acknowledged it did not assess Ms X’s circumstances. On a balance of probabilities, I believe the Council did not make any decisions about Ms X’s circumstances at the time.
  5. If the Council had conducted an assessment in March 2021, I cannot say what decision it would have made, even on a balance of probability. I understand Ms X had some arrears with her former landlord at the time of her initial approach and that the validity of these arrears was in some dispute. The Council’s allocations policy sets out ways in which having arrears may result in reduced priority, or exclusion from the scheme until such time as the arrears are addressed. The Council may have concluded there were no barriers to accepting a housing duty towards Ms X, or it may have concluded these arrears affected Ms X’s eligibility or priority. The uncertainty caused by the Council failing to carry out an assessment is a significant injustice to Ms X in itself.
  6. The Council accepted the relief duty and provided temporary accommodation in October 2021. At that point, Ms X was homeless with a young child, without a fixed address, and had cleared her arrears with her former landlord. Her circumstances were the same then as they had been in July 2021, the point at which Ms X contacted the Council again for assistance. On a balance of probabilities, I therefore believe it likely the Council would have accepted the relief duty towards Ms X in July 2021, had it carried out an assessment at the time. I also believe it would have subsequently accepted the main housing duty for Ms X as soon as September 2021.
  7. Ms X secured suitable permanent accommodation approximately four months after the Council accepted the main housing duty towards her. Applying the same timescale suggests Ms X could potentially have secured suitable permanent accommodation from approximately December 2021, around three months earlier than she eventually did.
  8. The overall uncertainty and time spent in unsuitable accommodation before the Council provided the relief duty is a significant injustice to Ms X, given the individual factors in this case. I am of the view the Council has not adequately addressed this injustice.

Complaint the Council failed to progress Ms X’s application as required by procedure and legislation

  1. The Council provided temporary accommodation to Ms X from the 5 October 2021. The Council’s records show it accepted a relief duty to Ms X on the 21 October 2021. It should have sent Ms X a decision letter, explaining this duty and her relevant rights of appeal. It did not send this letter until the 21 December 2021. I have found the Council at fault for this.
  2. I believe this fault caused Ms X an injustice. The Council should have sent its decision letter at the correct time. This letter explained its responsibilities to Ms X at that point. It also set out her right to appeal against the Council’s decision and the temporary accommodation the Council had offered, if Ms X believed it was not suitable. Ms X lost this right of appeal and the chance to understand what the Council had decided about her circumstances, causing avoidable uncertainty.
  3. The Council’s records show it accepted the main housing duty towards Ms X on 21 December 2021. It sent a letter confirming this decision at the same time as its letter about relief duty. It confirmed it had backdated the main housing duty to 1 December 2021, 56 days after it said it accepted relief duty. I have found the Council at fault for the delay in sending this decision letter.
  4. I have also found the Council at fault for sending decision letters about both the relief and main duty on the same date, with no clarification as to why this was happening.
  5. I believe these faults caused Ms X an injustice. Ms X was again not notified of the Council’s decision about her housing circumstances at the correct time, causing a period of avoidable uncertainty and loss of appeal rights for a period. Receiving two letters about her housing circumstances at the same time, setting out each party’s responsibilities under different parts of housing legislation, also caused avoidable uncertainty.
  6. In its further complaint response, the Council acknowledged it failed to properly notify Ms X of its decisions and said it would remind officers of the importance of doing so. I recognise the Council’s acknowledgement and believe this is appropriate. However, I do not believe this remedy fully addresses the injustice to Ms X.

Complaint the Council failed to properly communicate with Ms X about her homelessness

  1. As outlined in paragraphs 41 and 42, Ms X contacted the Council on multiple occasions to explain her circumstances, highlight the distress she felt, and ask for assistance. Beyond general acknowledgements, the Council did not respond to these contacts for several months. The Council accepted this in its final complaint response. I acknowledge the Council has accepted this was fault and agree with this finding.
  2. I believe this fault caused Ms X an injustice. In addition to other faults identified in this statement, the lack of response from the Council compounded already difficult circumstances and caused Ms X unnecessary, avoidable distress. I am of the view this injustice has not been addressed.

Complaint the Council provided incorrect housing advice

  1. Ms Y said the Council gave Ms X incorrect housing advice. She said this resulted in Ms X believing she had to pay off her historic arrears as a lump sum before the Council would offer assistance.
  2. I have not seen evidence the Council gave Ms X advice to this effect after her initial approach in March 2021. The Council’s documented advice then was to create a housing application so she could bid on properties and to explore options in the private rented sector. When Ms X contacted the Council again in July 2021, she told the Council she had paid off her arrears with her former landlord, but could not register for choice-based letting because she had no fixed address.
  3. I have seen no evidence the Council gave specific advice regarding arrears or debt management. I have not therefore found the Council at fault for giving Ms X incorrect advice about this.
  4. However, councils have a duty to provide the types of advice set out in paragraph 8 of this statement. I have seen no evidence the Council advised Ms X of her rights or its own responsibilities when she first approached, or when she repeatedly tried to get assistance and advice between July and October 2021. These contacts were missed opportunities for the Council to provide information and assistance to Ms X. I have therefore found the Council at fault for failing to provide Ms X with advisory services about her housing circumstances.
  5. I believe this fault caused Ms X an injustice. Ms X was clearly seeking assistance and advice on how to address her circumstances. I consider that this lack of advice from the Council caused avoidable frustration, distress and uncertainty at a time when Ms X was particularly vulnerable.

Complaint the Council incorrectly prioritised Ms X’s housing application

  1. Ms Y said Ms X should have been awarded priority Band A from April 2021. This would have made her higher priority for properties in December 2021, the point at which the Council did accept a main housing duty. The Council did offer to backdate Ms X’s priority to this date, if the accepted offer of permanent accommodation fell through. The Council said this was a gesture of goodwill for not having properly assessed Ms X in March 2021. It said it had correctly prioritised Ms X’s application later, when it accepted the main housing duty.
  2. As outlined previously, I cannot say what decision the Council would have made in March 2021 about what duty it owed and what priority Ms X should have, had it carried out an assessment. I believe this causes uncertainty for Ms X; however, I consider this aspect of Ms X’s complaint to be inextricably linked with the Council’s failure to properly accept and assess Ms X’s initial application. I have not therefore made a separate finding of fault on this point.

Complaint handling

  1. The Council did not respond to Ms Y’s complaint within 10 working days at stage one of its complaints procedure, taking 42 days. I have found the Council at fault for this delay.
  2. The Council did not respond to Ms Y’s complaint within 12 weeks at stage two of its complaints procedure, taking approximately 39 weeks. I have found the Council at fault for this delay.
  3. I consider these faults caused an injustice to Ms X. Ms X experienced further avoidable frustration in chasing a response to her complaint. A quicker response from the Council may have mitigated the need to refer the complaint to the Ombudsman.

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Agreed action

  1. The Ombudsman’s Guidance on Remedies recommends payments of up to £350 per month in cases where a complainant has been deprived of suitable accommodation in inevitably stressful periods. It also recommends payments of between £100 and £300 for avoidable distress, rising to £1000 in cases where the distress was severe or prolonged. The guidance says we should take account of individual circumstances in our recommendations, considering the impact on the complainant, whether the complainant was vulnerable, and the impact on other members of the complainant’s household.
  2. In making the following recommendations, I have considered Ms X suffered avoidable distress and frustration during a time when she was particularly vulnerable. I have also considered there would have been an impact on her young child, B.
  3. Within four weeks of the final decision being issued, the Council has agreed to:
      1. apologise to Ms X in writing for the faults and injustice identified in this statement.
      2. pay Ms X a total of £2000 in recognition of the injustice she experienced. This is broken down as follows:
        1. £350 in recognition of the uncertainty caused by the Council failing to assess Ms X’s homelessness when she first approached the Council;
        2. £1050 in recognition of the time Ms X and B spent in unsuitable accommodation between July and October 2021, a figure of £350 per month;
        3. £300 in recognition of the avoidable distress, uncertainty and frustration Ms X experienced because of the Council’s delays and poor communication; and
        4. £300 in recognition of the avoidable time and trouble Ms X incurred in pursuing her complaint.
  4. The Council should provide us with evidence it has complied with the above actions.
  5. In a report issued against the Council earlier this year, we recommended the Council review its procedures for homelessness referrals, and issue reminders to relevant staff, to ensure it meets its statutory duties for homelessness applicants within the required timescales. This process is ongoing and we will seek evidence of the Council’s compliance with this recommendation. To avoid duplication, I have not made the same recommendations again.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation with a finding of fault causing injustice. I have made recommendations to remedy the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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