Public authority duty to refer

The duty of specified public authorities to refer a person who is homeless or threatened with homelessness to a local housing authority.

This content applies to England

Duty to refer to a local housing authority

Certain public authorities must notify a local housing authority in England, where one of its service users may be homeless or at risk of homelessness, and agrees to the referral.[1]

'Service user' is a generic term used in the guidance to describe the people who come into contact with public services. Depending on the public authority this might include patients, jobseekers, prisoners and members of the armed forces.

The public authority must allow the service user to choose to which local authority they would like the referral to be made.[2] The Homelessness Code of Guidance suggests that a service user is provided with information on how local connection is defined to inform their decision.[3]

Government guidance Guide to the duty to refer reminds referring authorities that a service user who asks to be referred to an area where they have no local connection may be referred on to an area where they do have a connection, and to be aware of this when offering guidance to a service user on which authority to choose.[4]

The public authority must ask the service user how they can be contacted by the local authority.[5]

A referral cannot be made to a Scottish or Welsh local authority.

The public authority is not required to carry out a housing needs assessment.[6]

Which public authorities have a duty to refer

The following are public authorities with a duty to refer:[7]

  • prisons (public and contracted out)

  • youth offender institutions and youth offending teams

  • secure training centres (public and contracted out) and colleges

  • probation services (community rehabilitation companies and national probation service)

  • jobcentre plus

  • accident and emergency services provided in a hospital

  • urgent treatment centres, and hospitals in their capacity of providing in-patient treatment

  • social service authorities

The Ministry of Defence is also subject to the duty to refer in relation to members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the regular army and the Royal Air Force.

Identifying when a referral might be required

Government guidance on the duty to refer states that, although staff in a public authority may know if a service user is sleeping rough, or is homeless but not roofless (perhaps because they are sofa-surfing and provide a care of address, or because they frequently change address), it may be more difficult to identify a person who is threatened with homelessness.

The guidance suggests that service users should be asked if they have:[8]

  • debt problems

  • problems with a landlord such as being threatened with eviction

  • experienced domestic abuse or other threats or violence

  • a history of being in care, armed forces or prison

  • accommodation available if they are approaching discharge from hospital, armed forces or custody

Obtaining the person's consent

In general, a referral cannot be made without the service user's consent. However, consent may be waived in order to safeguard children or vulnerable adults.

Although oral consent is acceptable, public authorities are advised that it is obtained in writing.[9]

Referral procedure

At a minimum, a referral must include the individual's name, contact details and reason for the referral.[10]

The Homelessness Code of Guidance provides guidance on devising a referral procedure. This includes:[11]

  • the procedure should be decided by service partners in each local area and tailored to the authority concerned

  • joint working arrangements should be established

  • the focus should be on the earliest possible identification of people at risk of homelessness

  • local authorities should store information received from the referring authority to use in its assessment and personalised housing plan

  • having a single point of contact for public authority referrals, which should be widely publicised

  • housing authorities should inform public authorities with a duty to refer of how they will respond to a referral

The Code suggests that public authorities should consider whether it may be more appropriate to assist a service user to make a homeless application to a local authority than to refer them. This may be the case where the service user has support needs, for example.

A local authority might ask for referrals to be made using a standard referral form. The form might ask the public authority concerned to provide more information about the referral, for example, whether the individual is at risk of sleeping rough, or any key medical information. However, local authorities are advised to keep the mechanism as simple as possible, based on the minimum information required.[12]

The procedure may consider how to manage multiple or repeat referrals.

Where an authority has not provided or publicised its referral mechanism, or where a referral is being made out-of-area, a public authority may use the Duty to refer: referral form.

What a local authority should do on receiving a referral

A referral made by a public authority under its duty to refer does not constitute a homeless application.[13] However, a local authority should always respond to a referral by contacting the individual.

If it does not get a response, it should provide information on how the individual can access advice and assistance via a phone call, email or a letter.

If contact with a person referred gives the housing authority reason to believe that they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, this will trigger a homelessness application.[14]

Last updated: 13 March 2021


  • [1]

    s.213B Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; chapter 4 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018.

  • [2]

    para 4.1(b) Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [3]

    para 4.8 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018

  • [4]

    para 5 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, Sept 2018.

  • [5]

    s.213B(2)(b) Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

  • [6]

    para 4.19 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [7]

    Schedule to Homelessness (Review Procedure etc.) Regulations 2018 SI 2018/223.

  • [8]

    para 4 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, Sept 2018.

  • [9]

    para 6 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, Sept 2018.

  • [10]

    para 4.13 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [11]

    paras 4.5 to 4.18 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [12]

    para 7 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, Sept 2018.

  • [13]

    para 4.19 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [14]

    para 4.20 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.