Southwark Council has had its wrists slapped by the High Court and ordered to change the way it deals with homeless people needing emergency accommodation.
Just months after the borough was ordered to pay out millions to a tenant who was unlawfully evicted and his belongings sent to the tip, Southwark has been caught out again, this time for not offering housing to vulnerable people facing homelessness.
The law states that if someone presents as homeless to a local authority, the council must immediately investigate whether it owes them a duty of care and provide them with temporary accommodation in the meantime.
Law firm Hansen Palomares sought a Judicial Review after their client, a refugee from Iran, was refused help from Southwark. After his GP intervened the family of four were given one room to stay in for two weeks, at which point they were told they would be expected to find private rented accommodation.
The family’s solicitor, Lara ten Caten, said this was one of many cases the firm had dealt with over the years, where Southwark turned people away telling them they should find a property in the private sector. “For years we have been concerned about the way Southwark has been turning away homeless people”, she said. “The victims have included refugees, a young person leaving care who was also a victim of domestic violence, a blind woman and many, many more. Some were refused temporary accommodation. When challenged, Southwark has always claimed that it was a mistake or some rogue officer who had misunderstood council policy.”
The claim was taken to court in May last year, when the council then agreed to house the family, but denied it was operating unlawful policies and procedures.
This month the High Court published its ruling ordering the council to “cease with immediate effect” the use of its leaflet entitled ‘Housing Options Service’ and the practice of getting homeless applicants to prove they meet several criteria before they would be considered for assistance.
Cllr Richard Livingstone, cabinet member for housing, said he was “grateful” to the law firm for bringing this “important issue” to the council’s attention.
“Thanks to them we realised that while our housing application team was acting lawfully, some poor practices had crept into the processes employed by some staff, which meant that some potentially homeless clients might not have been provided with the assistance to which they were entitled.”
Cllr Livingstone said Southwark had already begun to implement these changes in May last year.
“Since then, when a client comes to us and declares they are homeless their application is treated properly and, where applicable, they are looked after by one, named housing officer throughout the process.”
Council staff have since undergone retraining from Shelter, which will be updated every year.
“It is important to us that we fulfil our legal duties and, more than that, care for and hold clients in the highest regard. We are now confident that this will always be the case. We are pleased to say that we have accepted a full housing duty for the client concerned who has been a council tenant since September,” added Cllr Livingstone.