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Shameful housing strategy

R (AM) v London Borough of Havering and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets [2015] EWHC 1004 (Admin)

Representing our client (AM), Lou Crisfield has been hailed a ‘real hero’ in a case which is likely to have widespread application for homeless families who are found to be intentionally homeless and who have been placed “out of borough”. The case also notoriously saw High Court judge, Mr Justice Cobb brand the behaviour of two local authorities as ‘shameful’.

After moving from Birmingham, with his wife and baby, to find work, AM’s first application for housing to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was rejected in March 2013 because he was considered to be intentionally homeless.

AM made another application after the birth of his second child a year later. Due to a shortage of suitable housing locally, LBTH provided temporary out-of-borough accommodation in Havering for the family. They referred the case to their own social services department but when the housing department again rejected the application LBTH sought to end the provision of temporary accommodation.

LBTH social services started an assessment of need, based on the older child’s seizures and the mother’s post-natal mental health issues, and requested that the temporary accommodation continue until the assessment was complete. The housing department refused the request.

The assessment progressed until LBTH’s lawyers advised that LBTH was no longer responsible for the family because they did not live in the borough, even though LBTH had placed the family in Havering. This was just one day before the scheduled end date for the temporary accommodation.

Although LBTH had not sent notice, required under s. 208, Housing Act 1996, informing Havering that AM was living in their area, it advised AM to apply to Havering social services for assistance. Havering, also denying responsibility, referred AM back to LBTH. In response, LBTH sent a one page referral to Havering.

Pushed from pillar to post, AM approached Miles & Partners for advice. Appalled at the treatment of her client and his vulnerable family, Lou informed both local authorities that we would be taking action on AM’s behalf. On 3rd July 2014 LBTH and Havering informed us respectively that they were closing the case and taking no further action.

Havering went on to tell us that “this is a clear case of attempting to dump responsibility … by transferring homeless clients out of the borough from which they originate” and that “As long as the family attend [LBTH’s children’s services] … they will have physical presence in that Borough …” which was deemed sufficient to push responsibility back to LBTH.

With both boroughs absolving themselves of responsibility, AM, his wife, their two-year old and 12-week old baby were forcibly evicted from their temporary accommodation and made street homeless on the 11 July 2014.

Lou instructed Tim Baldwin of Garden Court Chambers and prepared a claim for judicial review on AM’s behalf and obtained an interim order requiring Havering to provide accommodation pending the outcome of the judicial review.

In the high court, the claim was allowed. In his judgment, Mr Justice Cobb took the opportunity to angrily criticize both councils, and clarified that:

The originating authority, in this case Tower Hamlets, had a duty to continue to provide accommodation under its Housing Act duties pending the outcome of the Children Act 1989 assessment by the receiving authority.

In normal circumstances, the receiving Local Authority (in this case Havering) would be responsible for the assessment of needs of the children. However, because Tower Hamlets had already begun the assessment, best practice required that Tower Hamlets should have completed it, either on its own behalf or as an agent for Havering.

Tower Hamlets breached its duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children by omitting to make a timely and proper referral to Havering or co-operating with Havering to improve the wellbeing of children.

Havering claimed that, even it it were responsible, the children were not in need and therefore not entitled to an assessment, despite the fact that they were homeless and there were past social service concerns. Mr Justice Cobb found this to be so irrational as to be Wednesbury unreasonable.

QTT A test of unreasonableness applied to an administrative decision so extreme that the courts may intervene to correct it.

Mr Justice Cobb castigated both authorities saying:

“Persistent and endemic failures on the part of neighbouring local authorities to co-operate with each other in resolving such issues in individual cases have regrettably resulted in vulnerable families (including potentially AM’s family) being without support or services. It appears that some local authorities remain impervious to previous judgments of the Courts and cogent guidance offered by the Codes of Practice in this regard.”

“… it is unacceptable for the authorities simply to stonewall each other while attempting to offload their obligations”

“Indeed, the strategy which each authority adopted … to avoid responsibility for AM and his family was shameful.”
As a result of the judge’s remarks, this important case has been widely reported in legal, housing and regional press, highlighting the plight of families like AM’s.

At the time of writing, after more than a year looking for an affordable property, AM has the offer of a two bed property with a private landlord amenable to tenants reliant on Housing Benefit. However, the rent payments are higher than the Local Housing Allowance. Lou is looking into the potential for Discretionary Housing Payments or any help available from Havering Children’s Services Department.

She continues to help other clients in similarly desperate situations, especially in London where it is incredibly difficult for people on low incomes to find affordable properties to rent.

For more details on the case itself, please click on this link.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

Lou Crisfield, Miles & Partners Solicitors, London