Our grateful thanks to Angharad Monk of Garden Court (and instructing solicitor Anne Spowart of Morrison Spowart) for this note of judgment in a section 204 Housing Act 1996 appeal of Waltham Forest’s decision to discharge duty.
Mekonen v LB Waltham Forest, County Court at Central London, 8 August 2022
Ms Mekonen was a refugee from Ethiopia with limited ability to speak or read English. LB Waltham Forest made her an offer of private sector accommodation in discharge of the main housing duty. The offer was made in writing and over the telephone, but without an interpreter. Ms Mekonen was accompanied to view the accommodation by voluntary support worker, who also did not speak her native language (Amharic). Ms Mekonen refused the accommodation and was assisted by her support worker and the Property manager to complete a refusal form with reasons. Following the refusal, Ms Mekonen’s support worker expressed concerns to Waltham Forest that Ms Mekonen would not have understood the consequences of refusing the offer due to her language difficulties. Waltham Forest issued a decision that the duty was discharged, and upheld that decision on review, making a finding that Ms Mekonen would have understood the contents of the letter as a result of the support received from her friends and support workers. Ms Mekonen appealed.
HHJ Backhouse allowed the appeal on the basis that the review officer’s finding that Ms Mekonen had understood the consequences of refusing the offer to be irrational: “Irrationality is a very high hurdle, but in looking at the total picture, it is striking that the local authority at no point took the obvious and easy step of arranging a telephone call with Ms Mekonen with the help of an Amharic interpreter, to go through the policy and the consequences, even more striking when on two occasions the local authority had done just that when signing Ms Mekonen up for temporary accommodation.” The Judge accepted that “the evidence before the review officer was overwhelmingly that even with help from lay people and her support worker in particular she couldn’t get across the consequences of refusal.”
It was particularly concerning that the council officer had stated
all letters are sent out in English to my understanding and whether an applicant can read English or not (with regards to their native language) it doesn’t have much effect on their PRSO offer as that is based on affordability, suitability and availability at the time of the offer.”
It was simply wrong to suggest that it didn’t matter if an applicant couldn’t understand or read letters.
Appeal allowed and decision to discharge duty quashed.