In this case a Personal Housing Plan was found to be unlawful following an appeal to the county Court under Section 204 of the Housing Act 1996. This was because➖
Mr Maric approached Westminster City Council for help after his landlady gave him notice to quit. While Mr Maric was expected to leave within a month, he was only spoken to by a housing office after 25 days; a week before he would be out on the streets. In the telephone call only basic information was taken, which was nevertheless used to complete an assessment and personalised housing plan (‘PHP’) pursuant to s.189A of the Housing Act 1996 (‘the Act’). However, neither the assessment nor the plan were developed with reference to medical information, because Mr Maric had asked if he could complete the relevant form himself. He returned the completed form to the Council, which listed various serious physical and mental health problems.
In the days leading up to his eviction, Mr Maric repeatedly called the Council for help, hoping to speak to the housing officer who had spoken to him previously. The Council referred him to Westlets – its private sector rental scheme – but did neither spoke to him nor did anything else to help him. Mr Maric ended up on the streets for 4 weeks in winter until a charity pressurised the Council into housing him under s.188(1) of the Act.
The charity had also requested on behalf of Mr Maric a review of the steps the Council was to take under s.189B(2) of the Act. The subsequent review was delayed by 6 months but when it was eventually completed it upheld the initial decision. Mr Maric appealed under s.204 of the Act. In a hearing before HHJ Lochrane, Mr Maric succeeded on all three grounds of appeal.
The first ground of appeal claimed that the Review Decision had failed to consider, and/or made perverse conclusions about, whether the Council’s assessment and PHP met the statutory requirements under s.189A of the Act. This appeal ground was premised on the submission that a local housing authority’s proper assessment of an applicant’s case and agreement of a PHP, pursuant to s.189A, are conditions precedent for the steps they are to take under s.189B to be reasonable. Simply put: unless the Council understand an applicant’s case, it cannot know what steps are reasonable in the circumstances.
HHJ Lochrane accepted Mr Maric’s criticisms of the assessment and PHP, in particular the failure by the Council to consider his medical problems and fraught history in the private housing sector. In turn, the Judge also accepted “the inevitable logical position advanced (…) [that] this inevitably means the reasonableness or otherwise of the steps which were subsequently proposed is fundamentally flawed.” The Review Decision had neither identified nor remedied this flaw.
The second ground of appeal challenged the failure of the Council to direct or assist Mr Maric with making an application for accommodation under Part VI of the Act. The Review Decision argued this was unnecessary because such an application would inevitably be unsuccessful. However, the relevant policy granted the Council a discretion – which meant an application could be successful – and there had been no consideration of that discretion nor the manner in which it would be exercised. In the circumstances, the Judge concluded that the failure to even mention the point was inherently unreasonable.
The third ground of appeal focussed on the public sector equality and followed primarily from the failure to properly consider Mr Maric’s medical problems.
Councils Now Have To Carry Out Genuine Assessments and Provide Adequate Assistance
Westminster’s behaviour in failing to properly assess Mr Marics’s housing needs and then producing a Personal Housing Plan setting out just a referral to a private sector letting agency was just what cynical housing lawyers expected when we first heard about the new assessment and planning duties in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. We expected council’s to just pay lip service and provide standardised advice which was of no practical use as they had been doing pursuant to their existing duty under S190 of Housing Act 1996. This case is very encouraging because Westminster was not allowed to get away with this. At paragraph 23 the Judge states:
“In order to ensure that this does not become a completely tick-box exercise individual cases are individually assessed on individual bases, taking into account the individual circumstances of each individual applicant.”
A Personal Housing Plan Based On An Inadequate Assessment Will Be Defective
At paragraph 37 the Judge states:
It seems to me an assessment needs to be carried out, in consultation as fully a possible with the relevant applicants, to ensure the assessment has been holistic, that it covers all the relevant matters, before proceeding to determine what the PHP might be, and the reasonableness of the steps proposed, and then going on to the agreement process.
The Personal Housing Plan Was Defective Because It Did Not Include Advice About a Housing Register Application
It is encouraging that the Judge found that the Personal Housing Plan was defective because it did not include advice about the possibility of Mr Maric making an application for social under Part 6 of the Housing Act 1996. This shows the extent of the duty of the council to provide practical advice. It remains to be seen to what extent councils will be able to get away with limiting their advice to pointing out the possibility of an application under Part 6 of the Housing Act 1996 and leaving it to the applicant to take if from there or whether council staff will be expected to help the applicant to make the application.
The Assessment Will Need to Include Consideration of Any Disabilities Which The Applicant Has
The council in this case went through the usual motions of claiming to have considered Mr Maric’s needs before coming up with the predictable text in the decision letter:
"Having looked at your review representation, medical information on Mr Maric's file, there is nothing to suggest that private rented accommodation would not be suitable for his needs. He is a single person who is fifty-six years old, he suffers from some mental and physical health issues, currently being treated by his health professionals. There is no medical evidence to support Mr Maric OPUS 2 DIGITAL TRANSCRIPTION cannot cope in private rented accommodation and that this would not be suitable for his needs."
This was held to be defective. The Judge stated at paragraph 51
“ ….it, in reality, in my judgment, does not reflect a proper consideration of the disabilities from which he suffers and, importantly, the impact on the decisions which the Authority was in the process of making in respect of the duties which it owed to him.”
This shows that there had been an inadequate assessment and the council had failed to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty which requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different people when carrying out their activities.