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Homelessness law and guidance

This content applies to England

An overview of the law relating to homelessness.

Legislative framework

The main provisions on homelessness are contained in Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996. The Act includes:

  • principal criteria for determining which duties a local authority will owe to a homeless applicant
  • the duties to inquire into an application
  • when and how an applicant should be notified of a decision
  • main accommodation duties and how they can be discharged
  • how a decision can be challenged

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force on 3 April 2018 (with limited exceptions). It made significant changes to Part 7 of the 1996 Act. Its main effect is to place increased duties on local authorities to assess an applicant's needs and to prevent and relieve homelessness. It should be noted that the changes introduced under the Act will not apply to an applicant who applied as homeless before 3 April 2018.

The Homelessness Act 2002 introduced the requirement on local authorities to regularly review the levels (and likely future levels) of homelessness in their areas, and to formulate a homelessness strategy.

The Localism Act 2011, amended the 1996 Act  by giving local authorities the power to end the main housing duty by arranging an offer of suitable accommodation in the private rented sector.

The Secretary of State has the power to issue regulations to specify details regarding the homelessness provisions, and has done so to prescribe, for example:

  • additional categories of people in priority need[1]
  • persons from abroad who are eligible for assistance[2]
  • suitability of accommodation criteria[3]

Code of Guidance

The Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities is issued by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). It provides statutory guidance on how to interpret and apply the homelessness legislation and contains details of good practice that local authorities should adopt. It is not legally binding but local authorities are required to have regard to it.[4] Failure to have regard to the current Code can be used as a basis for a judicial review challenge.

The current Code came into effect on 3 April 2018. It is periodically updated, including new paragraphs being added, so it is best to refer to the online version as paragraph references are subject to change. The previous Code (and supplementary Codes) should apply to applications made before 3 April 2018.

From 3 April 2018, the MHCLG has the power to issue a statutory code of practice if it is clear that certain functions relating to homelessness are not being met. A code of practice may apply to all local authorities or to specified local authorities.[5]

[1] Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation)(England) Order 2002 SI 2002/2051

[2] Allocation of Housing and Homelessness (Amendment) Regulations 2004 SI 2004/1235.

[3] Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) Order 1996 SI 1996/3204.

[4] R v Newham LBC ex p Bones (1992) 25 HLR 357, QBD; Newham LBC v Khatun & Ors [2004] EWCA Civ 55; Birmingham CC v Balog [2013] EWCA Civ 1582.

[5] s.214A Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.11 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

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