Public authority duty to refer
The rules for when a public authority must refer a person who is homeless or threatened with homelessness to a local housing authority.
- What is the duty to refer?
- Public authorities that have a duty to refer
- Identifying homelessness and threatened homelessness
- Obtaining the service user’s consent
- Which local authority to refer to
- How to make a referral
- What a local authority should do on receiving a referral
- Duty to refer and making a homeless application
- Challenging a local authority response to a referral
What is the duty to refer?
Certain public authorities must notify local authorities that a person who has engaged with them might be homeless or at risk of homelessness. Referrals under the duty to refer are made to council housing departments.
The legislation and guidance call the person being referred the ‘service user’. Service user is a generic term used to describe someone who comes into contact with a public service. This includes hospital patients, jobseekers, people in prison and members of the armed forces.
A public authority has a duty to refer if it is exercising its functions in relation to the service user and either:
it considers the service user to be homeless or threatened with homelessness
the service user discloses they are homeless or at risk of homelessness
A referral must be made if the service user:
agrees to the referral
specifies the local authority they wish to be referred to
agrees that their contact details can be given to the local authority
Chapter 4 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance covers the duty to refer.
Public authorities that have a duty to refer
Public authorities that have a duty to refer are:
social service authorities
prisons (public and contracted out)
all probation services
youth offender institutions and youth offending teams
secure training centres (public and contracted out) and colleges
accident and emergency services provided in a hospital
urgent treatment centres, and hospitals in their capacity of providing in-patient treatment
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.
Find out more about homelessness referrals for people in prison and on probation.
Identifying homelessness and threatened homelessness
The duty to refer is triggered if the person is either homeless or threatened with homelessness.
When someone is homeless
A person does not need to be sleeping rough to be legally homeless. Homelessness can include where someone has accommodation but it is not reasonable to expect them to stay there.
Guidance on the duty to refer states that in many cases staff can easily identify that a person whom they are assisting is homeless. For example, if someone is sleeping rough, sofa surfing, frequently changes addresses or provides a care of address.
It can be more difficult to establish if someone is legally homeless because it is not reasonable to expect them to remain in their accommodation. This can include if:
the accommodation is unaffordable
the person is at risk of violence or abuse
the accommodation is not available for the whole household
Use our interactive tool for a quick answer on when someone is homeless or threatened with homelessness.
When someone is threatened with homelessness
A person is threatened with homelessness if they either:
are likely to have nowhere to stay in 56 days
have been given a valid section 21 notice that expires in the next 56 days
A section 21 notice might be invalid if the landlord has not followed the correct process. Use our section 21 validity checker for a quick answer on whether a section 21 notice might be invalid.
Government guidance on the duty to refer recognises that it can be challenging to identify when a person is threatened with homelessness. It recommends asking service users if they have:
problems with a landlord such as being threatened with eviction
experienced domestic abuse or other threats or violence
accommodation available if they are approaching discharge from hospital, armed forces or custody
A service user might also be threatened with homelessness if they have been in care, armed forces or prison and are finding it difficult to manage due to institutionalisation.
Obtaining the service user’s consent
A referral cannot normally be made without the person's consent. Consent can only be waived to safeguard children or vulnerable adults, in line with local procedures.
The Homelessness Code of Guidance advises local housing authorities to confirm with the referring public authority that the person has given their consent to a referral. Public authorities are advised to obtain the person's signature to confirm that they agree to a referral being made. This is not required and consent can be given orally. 
The public authority must ask the person how they can be contacted by the local housing authority and obtain consent for their contact details to be used.
Which local authority to refer to
A person being referred has the right to choose which English local housing authority they want to be referred to. The local authority must respond to the referral regardless of whether the person has any connections to that area.
Local housing authorities can check whether someone who is homeless has a local connection to their area as part of the homeless application process. The local authority cannot refuse to accept a homeless application because someone has no local connection.
If the person is homeless but has no local connection, the local authority can refer them to another local authority where they do have a local connection. A local connection referral cannot be made to an area where the person would be at risk of violence or abuse.
The Homelessness Code of Guidance and the government guidance to the duty to refer recommend that the person is given information on how local connection is defined to inform their decision.
Chapter 10 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance covers local connection.
How to make a referral
A referral must include:
the person's name and contact details
the reason for the referral
The referring public authority can include additional information about the person. For example:
whether they are homeless and at risk of rough sleeping on the date the referral is made
when they are likely to become homeless
whether they are subject to a risk assessment
key medical information
Public authorities are not required to carry out housing needs assessments before making a referral under the duty to refer.
Prisons and probation services should not include information on spent convictions. Find out more about homelessness referrals for people in prison or on probation.
Contacting the local authority
Local authorities should provide:
a standard email address
a single point of contact
A list of local authority email addresses for referrals is available on GOV.UK.
A local authority might ask for referrals to be made on a specific form or platform. The mechanism should be as simple as possible and based on the minimum information required. A standard form is available on GOV.UK. This can be used if an authority has not provided information on referrals, or where a referral is being made out-of-area.
What a local authority should do on receiving a referral
A local authority should always respond to a referral by contacting the person using the contact details provided.
If the person does not respond, the local authority should provide information on how they can get advice and assistance by phone, email or letter.
people leaving hospital
people being released from prison
people who have experienced domestic abuse
former members of the regular armed forces
Duty to refer and making a homeless application
A local authority must accept a homeless application if it has reason to believe that someone who has applied for assistance might be homeless or at risk of homelessness.
A referral under the duty to refer is not a homeless application. A local authority that has received a referral under the duty to refer should try to contact the person using the information provided. If the person wants assistance from the local authority and there is reason to believe they are homeless or at risk of homelessness it must accept a homeless application.
Helping someone make a homeless application
The Homelessness Code of Guidance suggests that public authorities should consider whether it may be more appropriate to assist a person to make a homeless application to a local authority than to refer them. This might include if the person:
is sleeping rough
has support needs
is at immediate risk of violence or abuse
Homeless applications can be made by someone else on behalf of a person who is homeless or threatened with homelessness. This could be someone acting in a professional capacity, including a probation officer or a support worker.
Challenging a local authority response to a referral
A local authority that has received a referral under the duty to refer should try to contact the person using the information provided. If the person wants assistance from the local authority and there is reason to believe they are homeless or at risk of homelessness it must accept a homeless application.
A local authority cannot insist that it will only accept a referral and not a homeless application. If a local authority refuses to make inquiries or to accept a homeless application when they have a duty to do so, this is known as gatekeeping.
A local authority's refusal to accept a homeless application could be challenged by judicial review. The person would require help from a solicitor with this and might be able to get assistance under legal aid if they are financially eligible.
A local authority could issue a written decision that a duty is not owed to the person after completing its inquiries. The person can request an internal review within 21 days of this decision.
Someone working at a public body could also assist the service user to:
make a complaint to the local authority
escalate a complaint to the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman
Last updated: 10 November 2022