This page is targeted at housing professionals. Our main site is at

Overview of 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 has 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]

Principal duties owed

The principal duties are to:

The way in which each duty is triggered and can come to end is addressed in the relevant pages in the 'Homelessness applications' section.

Any accommodation that is provided, obtained or secured must be suitable for the applicant.

The duties owed to an applicant will depend upon her/his particular circumstances and when s/he applied as homeless.

Main tests

The duties a local authority will owe to an applicant are determined by whether s/he is:

No duty will be owed to an ineligible applicant, save the general duty to provide free advisory services to those in its area.

Decisions and notifications

The local authority must:[13]

  • give notification of its decisions in writing
  • inform the applicant of the reasons for its decision when it does not accept a housing duty to the applicant
  • say if it intends to refer the applicant to another authority (under the local connection provisions) and give the reasons for that decision
  • inform the applicant where s/he has the right to request a review of a decision and the time limits for making such a request.


If an applicant disagrees with a local authority decision, there are three main ways that it can be challenged:

Applicants have a right to an internal review of most decisions made following a homelessness application. If an applicant is not satisfied with a review decision s/he has the right to appeal to the county court. Decisions that are not open to internal review may be open to challenge by judicial review.

As an alternative, a complaint can be made to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman who can investigate complaints about how a local authority exercises its homelessness functions.

[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.

[6] s.179 Housing Act 1996 as amended by s.2 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

[7] s.189A Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.3(1) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

[8] s.184 Housing Act 1996 as amended by ss.4(3) & 5(3) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

[9] s.195 Housing Act 1996 as amended by s.4(2) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

[10] s.188 Housing Act 1996 as amended by s.5(4) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

[11] s.189B Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.5(2) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

[12] s.193 Housing Act 1996 as amended by ss.5(7) & 7(2) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

[13] s.184 Housing Act 1996 as amended by ss.4(3) & 5(3) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

Back to top