Garden Court’s bulletin for 14 July (I’m catching up after the holiday) mentions a couple of interesting Local Government Ombudsman’s reports on the operations of Homeless Units in Lambeth and in Haringey.
Complaints 07/B/01138 & 07/B/05232 against Lambeth [link is to Word Doc] concerned delays by Lambeth in deciding on homeless applications. The Code of Guidance states that decisions should be made within 33 working days of application. In the case of one complainant, the decision had taken 9 months, leaving her in hostel accommodation with her baby. In the case of the other, the decision took 10 months while she and her child lived with family and friends.
The reason, the Ombudsman found was that:
In 2007 Supply and Demand underwent a “root and branch” reorganisation resulting in significant changes to the way in which all services are arranged and delivered, including the creation of an enhanced Prevention and Options Service. New structures came into effect in April 2007 and included the movement of six former Homelessness Assessment Team officers to the new Prevention and Options Service. However, the outstanding cases, approximately 250 in all, remained with the Homelessness Assessment Team, which also experienced a lack of leadership and guidance following the changes.
This resulted in a large backlog. Despite assurances to the Ombudsman that the backlog had been identified as an issue and a start made in December 2007 to clear it, Lambeth were saying in May 2008 that the backlog would take a further 18 weeks to clear.
The Ombudsman found:
That the Council did not take action to prevent these delays, and the fact that it appears to have been unaware of, or unconcerned about, the likely impact of removing half its homelessness assessment officers both amount to maladministration. Moreover, it seems to me that it took the Council almost eight months to realise that a backlog of assessments had developed and required positive action to deal with it. […] The failure to take prompt corrective action once the backlog started to become apparent amounts to further maladministration.
In Complaint 06/A/12508 against Haringey [Link to Word Doc] something more than a managerial stuff up was at stake. The complainer made a homeless application to Haringey in January 2005. Haringey began making enquires and a month later accepted a duty. However, Haringey did not offer interim accommodation under s.188 on beginning the investigation. When, after a fortnight, the applicant’s solicitors wrote requesting s.188 accommodation as she had no other place to stay, Haringey replied that she ‘could apply for interim accommodation if ‘she genuinely has nowhere else to stay’. The applicant was upset at her treatment and refused to make ‘an application’ for interim accommodation.
Haringey told the Ombudsman that:
The opening of a new homelessness application on 11 January 2005 does not imply necessarily that the council has reason to believe that she was homeless. It only indicates that she said she was homeless and we accepted a need to investigate … We had good reason to doubt [Ms David’s] assertion that she had been made homeless from [her address] or had, in fact ever lived there.
Haringey added that it considered:
that to accept an application under Part VII of the Housing Act is not necessarily equivalent to “having reason to believe” that a person is homeless
This, apparently was maintained on the basis of Counsel’s advice that it was a tenable view of s.183. Haringey added that the applicant’s solicitors had not ‘compelled’ the Council to offer interim accommodation on application as they could have done [so apparently it was their fault for not making the LA comply with its duty]. Haringey had apparently invented a whole new category of ‘enquiries’ under s.183, rather than s.184.
The applicant’s solicitors comments to the Ombudsman pointed out that Aweys v Birmingham had confirmed that the threshold triggering the duty to make enquiries is low, and that what is required is a ‘belief’ that the applicant may be homeless, not that the Council be reasonably satisfied that the applicant is homeless.
The Ombudsman states that:
The Council has, at various times during its correspondence with Ms David’s solicitor and with my office, referred to the need to determine that there was reason to believe that she was homeless, and to its duty to provide Section 188 accommodation only where there was reason to believe that a person was homeless. Sections 184 and 188 of the Act refer only to the need for authorities to have reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless. This is a crucial distinction, and it is of concern that the Council has confused the two tests. Establishing whether a person is actually homeless is part of the purpose of Section 184 enquiries: in line with Paragraph 3.10 of the 2002 Code of Guidance (and Paragraph 6.12 of the 2006 Code) (see Paragraphs 11 and 16), it is only when Section 184 has been engaged that the authority must make inquiries to satisfy itself whether the applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. It is therefore of concern that the Council believes that it needs “to satisfy itself that it has reason to believe that a person is genuinely homeless” [my italics] before considering whether it needs to secure interim accommodation for him or her (see paragraph 31). The test that it should have applied involved a lower threshold for the applicant to meet.
Exactly. That sounds like a clear statement of the law. Authorities can’t invent new thresholds of belief required or new ‘preliminary’ enquiries for themselves.