Possessions in council storage

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, we have 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, we may decide it reasonable to expect you to make a claim for damages in the county court. If you have already started court proceedings we 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. 

Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help.

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process

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 properly to consider protecting your possessions, when they were at risk
  • 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

Mrs B was homeless. The council arranged interim accommodation in a hostel. The hostel stopped providing the room for Mrs B and stored her belongings. Mrs B then spent several months in psychiatric care. Meanwhile, the hostel had disposed of her belongings. It said it had tried to contact Mrs B beforehand. There was no evidence of such contact. Nor had the hostel made an inventory or told the council it was disposing of the belongings. The council was at fault on those points, as it was ultimately responsible for the hostel’s actions. The lack of an inventory meant an avoidable dispute about what had been discarded, which we could not resolve.
The council agreed to apologise, pay Mrs B a symbolic £400 in recognition of the lost items and £150 for the distress and inconvenience caused. The council also told the hostel about its responsibilities for storing and disposing of belongings.

The council decided Miss X was homeless because she was at risk of domestic abuse if she remained in her home. It offered interim accommodation where Miss X would not be able to fit all her belongings. Miss X asked about arrangements for her belongings. The council said it would pay to transport them into storage and then pay only the first month’s storage fees. After that, Miss X would have to pay. Miss X said she could not afford that. Therefore, she did not move into the interim accommodation, instead remaining at the address where she was at risk.
We found the council was at fault because its legal duty to protect Miss X’s belongings was not limited to the first month.
At our recommendation, the council agreed to apologise and pay Miss X £300 for the distress caused. The council also agreed to take full account in future of the law and statutory guidance on storing belongings and not to have a blanket policy of limiting support to a particular amount of money or length of time.

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.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

January 2024

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