This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who have experienced problems with the way the council has looked after their possessions while dealing with their homelessness application and who may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.
The council did not look after my possessions properly when it accepted me as homeless. Can the Ombudsman help me?
In many cases, yes. The council may have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect your possessions if the council has decided that:
- It has a duty to provide accommodation for you because you are homeless, or
- It has a duty to provide accommodation for you while it considers your homelessness application, or
- It has a duty to help you find accommodation for at least six months while you are homeless (the ‘relief duty’).
This can mean putting your personal possessions, such as furniture and clothes, into storage where you have not been able to make any other arrangements to do so. The council can make reasonable charges for storing your possessions.
The council's responsibility ends when it considers your possessions are no longer at risk because you can protect them yourself. It must then write to you at your last known address to tell you its decision and the reasons for it.
The council can dispose of your possessions if it decides that its duty to protect them has ended but it has been unable to trace you, or if you have not collected them.
Before deciding whether to investigate your complaint, the Ombudsman has to consider whether you can and should take legal action against the council instead. If your possessions were damaged while in storage arranged by the council, the Ombudsman may think it reasonable to expect you to make a claim for damages in the county court. If you have already started court proceedings the Ombudsman will not be able to investigate your complaint.
So if you think the council has not taken proper care of your possessions it would be a good idea to seek advice first from a solicitor or an advice agency, such as a Citizens Advice Bureau or Law Centre.
How do I complain?
You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will normally have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.
Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.
You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council has done something wrong.
If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?
We consider whether the council has done something wrong that has caused problems for you. Some of the issues we can look at are if the council has:
- failed to consider protecting your possessions, when they were at risk, properly
- disposed of your possessions without properly considering whether they were still at risk
- failed to notify you when it decided it no longer had a responsibility to store your possessions
- failed to take reasonable steps to trace you to tell you its decision, or
- failed to take reasonable care of your possessions after arranging to store them.
What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?
It depends how you have been affected by what has gone wrong. If we find that the council wrongly disposed of your possessions, or the possessions were lost or damaged as a direct result of fault by the council, we may ask the council to pay you for any loss or damage.
The amount we ask for would depend partly on what evidence there is of the value of the possessions.
We can also take account of whether your actions made the situation worse, or whether you could have done something to prevent the problem occurring.
We may also ask the council to review its procedures for dealing with storage and disposal of property so that the problems you experienced don't happen to other people.
Examples of some complaints we have considered
The council wrongly believed its duty to protect Ms X’s belongings had ended when its duty to provide accommodation had ended. The council also unreasonably expected Ms X to pay the full cost of storing her belongings and refused her offers to pay part of the costs. The council then wrongly disposed of the belongings without giving Ms X the proper notification.
The council’s faults meant the family lost all their stored belongings, including furniture, white goods, bicycles, children’s clothes and toys. The council agreed our recommendation to pay £7,500. It also waived the storage charges and arranged training to ensure staff understand the council’s legal duties.
When Mr Y visited the storage location, he reported some of his belongings were missing. The council did not deal properly with that point. Later, the council destroyed Mr Y’s belongings because he had not collected them from storage. We found that was wrong because the council had a continuing duty to protect the belongings.
The council agreed our recommendations to pay Mr Y £750 to cover the cost of basic household items and furniture someone would need to set up a new home plus £250 to recognise the distress caused. The council also waived the storage charges.
Other sources of information
For practical help and advice, try Shelter at www.shelter.org.uk
Shelter run a helpline on 0808 800 4444
To find your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau go to www.citizensadvice.org.uk
Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.