The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is highlighting the importance of councils considering the exceptional circumstances of people fleeing domestic abuse when assessing their housing needs, following a complaint about London Borough of Wandsworth.
Following an investigation, the Ombudsman found Wandsworth council did not consider relaxing its local area connection criterion when a single mother asked for help. It was not safe for the woman to remain in another London borough where her former partner had assaulted her causing serious injuries.
The woman’s former partner had pleaded guilty to aggravated bodily harm and criminal damage and was in custody awaiting sentencing. She fled to her mother’s home where she and her child shared a bedroom with her sister. Her former partner knew the address. She asked Wandsworth for help, but it said she was not homeless.
The next day the woman told the council her mother wanted her to leave. The council told her about its council housing scheme, which she could apply for but not from her mother’s as it was not a safe address. The council suggested she move in with her uncle for 12 months and then she would qualify for its scheme. Her uncle lived very close to her mother, and her former partner also knew his address. She moved in with her uncle and chased the council about the housing scheme for many months with several different officers.
Eventually the council gave the woman a Personalised Housing Plan (PHP) which contained no future actions for the council. The council now told the woman she did not qualify for its scheme because she did not live in the borough.
The council did not investigate the woman’s homeless application, but instead encouraged her to withdraw it and apply to the council where she had suffered violence for help. She told Wandsworth council three times she would do this if the council put its advice in writing, but it refused.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found the council should have considered the woman and her child as homeless when she first approached it. It would have then accepted it owed her a relief duty and issued her with a Personal Housing Plan (PHP), but the plan it ended up giving the woman included incorrect information, saying the council could not help her to be safer where she was, and that she could not register on its allocations scheme.
The Ombudsman also found the council should have offered the woman interim accommodation. After 56 days, it should have then decided whether it owed her the main housing duty. Since the woman was homeless, eligible, in priority need and not homeless through any fault of her own, the council would have accepted it had a full duty to her.
It took at least eight months too long for the council to consider offering the woman interim accommodation, and it missed numerous opportunities to tell her about her right to review the council’s decisions, denying her right to appeal.
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King said:
“Statutory guidance says councils should not adopt allocations criteria that disadvantage people fleeing an area because of domestic violence. This has also been extended to people who have recently arrived in an area because of domestic violence.
“In this case, the woman had suffered a brutal assault and the council’s failures meant she continued to live in an area where she was at risk of violence. The council did nothing to help her find safe, alternative accommodation, even when it knew her ex-partner would be released from prison, leaving her frightened and at ongoing risk.
“I’m pleased the council has accepted the faults in my report and hope other councils can take my findings on board to ensure they also appropriately support people in a similar situation in need of their help.”
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council should apologise to the woman and put her in Band A of its allocations scheme backdated to October 2018, as well as provide suitable temporary accommodation in Wandsworth.
It should also pay her £500 for the delays in dealing with her applications and £150 a month for the 12 months she has stayed in relatives’ homes since her ex-partner left prison, because the council now says neither place was safe for her.
The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council should provide information to housing officers about its duties towards people fleeing domestic violence and tell officer the allocations local connection criteria does not apply. It should also arrange training for its housing options and homelessness officers in dealing with people who have suffered domestic abuse and review its allocations policy.
Article date: 14 January 2021