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16 and 17 year olds and priority need

This content applies to England

An explanation of priority need for 16 and 17 year olds.

All 16 and 17 year old homeless applicants must be accepted as in priority need except for an applicant who is a relevant child, or a child in need to whom a local authority owe a duty to provide accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.[1] Any duty owed to homeless 16 and 17 year olds under the Children Act 1989 takes precedence over the duties under the homelessness legislation, and the ongoing duty to accommodate and support will normally fall to social services rather than the housing authority.[2]

Relevant child

A relevant child:[3]

  • is aged 16 or 17
  • is no longer in care
  • was in care for a total of at least 13 weeks from the age of 14
  • was in care when aged 16 or 17.

For the purposes of this definition 'in care' means being looked after by a local authority under a care order or by voluntary agreement. This includes accommodation provided under section 20 of Children Act 1989 but does not include accommodation provided under section 17 of that Act. A 16 or 17 year old will also be a relevant child if s/he would have been in care on her/his 16th birthday, but was detained in the criminal justice system, in hospital, or had returned home on a family placement that subsequently broke down.[4] The full definition is found in Children Act 1989.[5]

The term 'relevant child' derives from the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 which amended the definition contained in section 23A of the Children Act 1989. Social services authorities have a responsibility to provide accommodation and financial and practical support for most 16 or 17 year old care leavers.[6]

For further information on social services' duties to care leavers, see the section Young people and care leavers.

Section 20 Children Act 1989

Under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, social services authorities are under a duty to provide accommodation for any child in need whose welfare is likely to be seriously prejudiced if s/he is not provided with accommodation or when the child has no parent/carer(s) or the parent/carer(s) are unable or unwilling to provide accommodation.[7]

A child is defined as in need if:

  • s/he is unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services by a local authority
  • her/his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of such services
  • s/he is disabled.[8]

Most homeless 16 or 17 year olds will be children in need, and this will trigger the section 20 duty.[9] Young homeless people are likely to have needs other than accommodation that should be fully assessed by social services to determine what other support should be provided.[10]

However, it is essential for social services to be involved in order for a section 20 duty to arise, this will normally be when a referral or approach has been made to social services.[11] Where a 17 year old was accommodated by the housing department under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996, and not referred to social services for assessment under the Children Act the court could not deem that a section 20 duty arose, even though it was clear to the court that the young person should have been referred and a section 20 duty would have arisen.[12]

If a homeless 16 or 17 year old who has nowhere to stay asks social services for help, MHCLG/DfE guidance states that social services must secure suitable emergency accommodation whilst their needs are assessed.[13]

Assessing 16 and 17 year olds

A housing authority must not simply refer homeless 16 or 17 year old applicants to social services. The housing authority is under a duty to assess whether an applicant is in priority need, and if it has reason to believe s/he may be homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need it must provide interim accommodation pending inquiries (this is likely to apply unless it knows the young person is a relevant child).[14] See Interim duty to accommodate for more information.

The MHCLG/DfE joint guidance states that if a 16 or 17 year old is homeless or threatened with homelessness the housing authority should make a referral to social services straight away for an assessment under the Children Act.[15] The housing authority must continue to accommodate the applicant until the outcome of the Children Act assessment, and until it knows if a duty is owed by social services under section 20. If the housing authority decides the applicant is not in priority need it must notify her/him of its decision.[16]

Housing and social services authorities, both in unitary or separate authorities, should have a joint-working protocol for the assessment of 16 and 17 year olds and to prevent young people being passed from pillar to post.[17]

Case law has established that a local authority cannot postpone a decision regarding the duties owed to a 17 year old applicant while mediation is attempted, where the effect of the delay would be that the applicant loses priority need status having turned 18.[18]

Forced to leave the parental home

The MHCLG/DfE joint guidance says that local authorities should work with young people and their families to try to resolve issues that have led to the homelessness. However this should not delay assessment under the Children Act 1989 and/or Housing Act 1996 or the fulfilment or discharge of any duty owed.[19] The Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities states that young people should only be supported to remain within the family network where it is safe and appropriate for them to do so.[20]

The Code of Guidance also warns authorities to be aware of possible collusion where families may be taking advantage of the fact that 16 or 17 year olds are in priority need. It states that where there is no genuine basis for homelessness and the arrangement has been fabricated between parents and child, the applicant will be intentionally homeless.[21] However, advisers should be ready to point out that the Code also states that authorities must come to their own decisions as to whether collusion exists, and must not rely on hearsay or unfounded suspicions.[22]

For further information see the section Intentional homelessness.

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children

Assessing the age of a child can pose particular problems where the child is an unaccompanied asylum seeker who may have little or no documentary evidence or whose documentary evidence is not accepted by the local authority. In reaching a decision the local authority must follow a fair procedure and carry out a reasonably detailed assessment. Reasons for the authority's conclusion should be given and the applicant should be permitted to respond.[23]

For more information see Help for ineligible children and families.

16- and 17-year-olds living with a household

In the situation where a homeless 16 or 17 year old is in priority need, then the housing authority may also owe a duty to the rest of her/his household, eg her/his family. This is because the authority has a duty for accommodation to be available to those who might reasonably be expected to reside with the applicant.[24]

If homelessness had arisen from an act or omission by a member of the applicant's household, eg the household is homeless due to a landlord evicting the household because of rent arrears, then the local authority may enquire as to whether the homelessness is intentional, and if the applicant had acquiesced in it. For more information, see the section Intentional homelessness.

Applications made before 3 April 2018

The current Homelessness Code of Guidance was introduced on 3 April 2018 and the references on this page are to this Code. For applications made before this date, the recommendations of the 2006 Code of Guidance should apply.

[1] art. 3 Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002 SI 2002/2051.

[2] R (on the application of G) v Southwark LBC [2009] UKHL 26; para 1.2 Provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation, MHCLG/DfE, April 2018.

[3] s.23A Children Act 1989, as inserted by s.2(4) of Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000; paras 8.20 and 8.21 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

[4] reg 3 Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010; paras 8.20 and 8.21 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

[5] s.24 Children Act 1989.

[6] s.23B(8) Children Act 1989 as amended by s.2 Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.

[7] s.20(1) and (3) Children Act 1989; R (on the application of G) v Southwark LBC [2009] UKHL 26.

[8] s.17(10) Children Act 1989.

[9] R (on the application of G) v Southwark LBC [2009] UKHL 26.

[10] paras 3.14 - 3.30, and Annex: Factors to be considered by children's services when assessing 16-17 years olds who may be children in need,  Provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation, MHCLG/DfE, April 2018; Working Together to Safeguard Children, DfE, 2015.

[11] R (on the application of M) v Hammersmith and Fulham LBC [2008] UKHL 14; R (on the application of TG) v Lambeth LBC and Shelter (Intervener) [2011] EWCA Civ 526.

[12] R (on the application of M) v Hammersmith and Fulham LBC [2008] UKHL 14.

[13] para 3.4 Provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation, MHCLG/DfE, April 2018.

[14] s.188(1) Housing Act 1996; R (on the application of M) v Hammersmith and Fulham LBC [2008] UKHL 14; para 4.2 Provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation, MHCLG/DfE, April 2018.

[15] para 4.4 Provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation, MHCLG/DfE, April 2018.

[16] s.184(3) Housing Act 1996.

[17] paras 6.6 to 6.11 Provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation, MHCLG/DfE, April 2018; see also R (on the application of TG) v Lambeth LBC and Shelter (Intervener) [2011] EWCA Civ 526 (obiter); para 8.23 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

[18] Robinson v Hammersmith and Fulham LBC [2006] EWCA Civ 1122, Admin.

[19] para 2.3 Provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation, MHCLG/DfE, April 2018.

[20] para 6.15 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018; see also paras 8.40 and 21.32 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

[21] paras 9.28 and 9.29 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

[22] para 9.28 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

[23] R (on the application of B) v Merton LBC [2003] EWHC 1689 (Admin); R (on the application of C) v Merton LBC [2005] EWHC 1753 (Admin); R (on the application of T) v Enfield LBC [2004] EWHC 2297 (Admin); R (on the application of FZ) v Croydon LBC [2011] EWCA Civ 59.

[24] s.176 Housing Act 1996; R (Ogbeni) v Tower Hamlets LBC [2008] EWHC All ER (D) 67 (Aug), Legal Action, October 2008.

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