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How to... minimise the chances of facing legal claims

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When the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 comes into force (anticipated on 2 or 3 April), local housing authorities will owe duties to everyone who is homeless or threatened with homeless provided that they are eligible for assistance.

First, the local housing authority must assess the applicant’s case. The assessment must be in writing and a copy given to the applicant. It will consider the circumstances causing homelessness, housing needs, what accommodation would be suitable, and what support would be needed for that person and his or her household to find and keep that accommodation. The assessment works out what went wrong and what the applicant will need so that things do not go wrong in the future.

There is some, limited, guidance in the draft Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, published for consultation in October 2017. It remains to be seen whether the final Code of Guidance, likely to be issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government in February or March 2018, contains any more detail.

Once the assessment has been completed, the applicant and the council will work together on the applicant’s personalised housing plan. This is a crucial document. It determines how the local housing authority is going to help the applicant to find and keep accommodation. It records what steps the local housing authority will take to help the applicant. The steps the applicant must take are either agreed with him or her, or, if there is no agreement, the PHP will record what steps the council considers would be reasonable for the applicant to take. Like the assessment, the PHP must be writing, and a copy given to the applicant.

The PHP is important for two reasons. First, it contains the plan as to how the applicant and local housing authority will work together to find accommodation. Second, if the local housing authority considers that the applicant is not doing enough, and that it might decide that he or she has deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate, it can only do so on the basis that the applicant failed to take a step recorded in the PHP and has failed to respond to a written warning.

The draft code again contains very little guidance as to what should be in the PHPs. PHPs should be tailored to the individual (rather than generic) and contain practical, reasonable and realistic steps for both the applicant and the local housing authority to take. Those steps could include attempting mediation with family members, consideration of discretionary housing payments or other financial assistance, creating safe accommodation for someone at risk of violence, or helping to secure an immediate safe place for people who are, or might be, sleeping rough.

Helpfully, Shelter has produced a free guide on what a PHP might look at: “It’s a personal thing: what service users need from assessments and personalised housing plans” (Shelter, November 2017).

There should be trustworthy and early advice to prevent homelessness, applicants should be treated with respect, dignity and empathy, and people should not be kept waiting for emergency accommodation for lengthy periods, uncertain whether there will be a roof over their head that night or not.

There are no penalties within the Act if councils fail to produce either of these documents. However, councils would find it impossible to undertake their prevention or relief duties without them, and would probably face a claim in judicial review by a dis-satisfied applicant requiring them to perform those duties. In addition, a non-cooperation decision could not be contemplated.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is intended to bring about a revolution in how homeless people are treated by councils. Its guiding principle is that all homeless people, or those who are threatened with homelessness, will be given genuine help, early on, tailored to their individual needs, so that each person can be helped to find a suitable home.

Liz Davies, barrister, Garden Court Chambers; co-author, Housing Allocation and Homelessness: Law and Practice 

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