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30/01/2010

Gatekeeping and an absence of records

Local Government Ombudsman’s decision:  London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (09 001 262)

‘Ms Kenza’ (not her real name) approached LB Hammersmith and Fulham as homeless when she had to leave her private rented home following an incident of domestic violence. She was 8 months pregnant.

Hammersmith did not place her in temporary accommodation pending enquiries. Instead officers encouraged her to find accommodation in the private sector. A homeless application was not mentioned by the officers. She was later given a night’s accommodation by the out of hours service and, she asserted, she then spent 4 days sleeping rough in a park.

She complained to the Ombudsman that Hammersmith had failed to give her adequate advice and assistance and also complained of sexual and racial discrimination.

The Ombudsman found that Ms Kenza “suffered some injustice because she was not provided with the level of support and assistance she could reasonably expect as a person who was homeless and in priority need”.

Further, the Ombudsman found maladministration causing injustice.

The standard of record keeping by housing officers in this case was so poor that it hindered the Ombudsman’s investigation of the complaint and fell so far below acceptable standards that it amounted to maladministration.

He said: “It has not been possible to resolve some conflicts of evidence because of the absence of detailed contemporaneous notes recording housing officers’ contact with Ms Kenza, [voluntary agency] caseworkers and other professionals.”

Officers did not consider taking a homelessness application from Ms Kenza after she left her accommodation even though she had told a housing officer she was homeless. The Council applied too strict a test when deciding whether it should provide Ms Kenza with temporary accommodation by insisting she provide proof of homelessness first. The Council also failed to follow its own procedures for referring victims of domestic violence to a specialist domestic violence housing advocate for support and advice. The liaison and exchange of information between officers in the Children’s Service and Housing Service about a vulnerable service user was also ineffective.

However, in the absence of any specific incident or comment made by an officer, the Ombudsman did not uphold Ms Kenza’s complaint that she was subjected to racial and sexual discrimination.

The Ombudsman recommended that the Council apologise to Ms Kenza and pay her £750. In addition the Council should:

  • remind all housing officers of the need to maintain accurate and detailed records of their contacts with service users and their advisers and advocates;
  • review its systems for sharing information between Children’s Services (and Adult Services in relevant cases) and the Housing Service about vulnerable service users;
  • ensure that the established procedure for referring service users to the domestic violence housing advocate are followed; and
  • ensure that all forms used by the Housing Service are dated and ensure that records of service users placed in emergency accommodation by the Out-of-Hours Service are copied to the housing officer responsible for the case.

Impressive work there by LB Hammersmith and Fulham, compounding gatekeeping with incompetence. In case anyone from the Council is reading, let me remind you of the wording of s.188 Housing Act 1996, with a little emphasis.

188. Interim duty to accommodate in case of apparent priority need. — (1) If the local housing authority have reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need, they shall secure that accommodation is available for his occupation pending a decision as to the duty (if any) owed to him under the following provisions of this Part.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

1 Comment

  1. Piers Chater

    Food for thought – keep it coming

    Reply

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