Local authority duty to make homelessness inquiries

Local authorities have a duty to carry out inquiries if they have reason to believe someone is homeless or threatened with homelessness.

This content applies to England

Duty to make inquiries

Someone who is homeless or threatened with homelessness can apply to the local authority for assistance.

The authority must accept the application and make inquiries if it has a reason to believe that the person may be homeless or threatened with homelessness within 56 days.[1]

Where a local authority has previously discharged a homelessness duty, it must accept a repeat application if the application reveals new facts which are neither trivial nor fanciful.

Initial inquiries

The authority must first establish if the applicant is owed either:

It must inquire into whether the applicant is:[2] 

Use our homeless rights checker to find out if someone is likely to be eligible for assistance based on their immigration or residence status.

Relief duty and local connection

Where the relief duty might be owed, the authority could make inquiries into whether the applicant has a local connection to its area.[3]

If the applicant has no connection to its area, the authority may be able to refer the applicant to another authority where they do have a connection.

Main duty inquiries

If the authority accepts a relief duty but homelessness is not resolved within 56 days, the authority must make inquiries into whether it owes the applicant the main duty.

The authority make inquiries inquires about the applicant's:

Accommodation during inquiries

The applicant must be provided with emergency accommodation while the authority carries out its inquiries if the authority has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible, and in priority need.[4]

Initial interview

Every person who applies to an authority for homelessness assistance should have an initial assessment of whether they are homeless or threatened with homelessness and eligible.[5]

Local authorities should not rely solely on an online process when making their inquiries. Inquiries usually require at least one face-to-face interview. An authority can conduct the interviews over the telephone or the internet where the applicant is unable to attend in person, for example where they are in hospital or experiencing domestic abuse.[6]

The interview should be long enough to allow the authority to make adequate inquiries. The High Court held that a 10-minute interview was not sufficient for an authority to establish the cause of a family breakdown.[7]  

Local authorities should not ‘screen out’ applicants with an interview that does not adequately investigate the situation. An authority acted unlawfully when it made a decision after a brief initial interview to assess an applicant who had evidence of an asylum-seeking background and mental health issues.[8] 

How an authority should carry out its inquiries

A local authority must carry out sufficient inquiries to satisfy itself that the applicant is owed a homelessness duty before they make a decision.[9] They must not make assumptions about important issues.[10] 

An authority must give the applicant an opportunity to challenge the authority's findings and make representations about their case.[11] 

An authority can ask certain agencies for assistance, including another housing authority, social services and social housing providers. These organisations are required to cooperate as far as is reasonable in the circumstances.[12]  

An authority should carry out its inquiries with humanity and care.[13]

Interpreters and translation

The Homelessness Code of Guidance states that local authorities should provide translated information and interpreting services where an applicant’s first language is not English. Local authorities should publicise the availability of these services to residents and community organisations.[14]  

Authorities should ensure translation and interpreting services are available for victims of domestic abuse where English is not their first language. As inquiries are detailed and sensitive, authorities should use professional services and avoid asking family members to translate or interpret, except where this is the applicant's preference.[15]

Medical inquiries

Local authorities should thoroughly investigate a medical condition that might mean the applicant is in priority need.[16]

In the case of a former asylum seeker whose mental health condition was caused by historic mistreatment, there was an expectation that the local authority's inquiries would involve:[17] 

  • consulting with the applicant's current and former medical advisers and the relevant mental health services 

  • sending a report from an in-house medical advisor to the applicant's GP or psychiatric adviser for a response

  • seeking a psychiatric report 

  • inquiring about the applicant's way of life before their homelessness

  • inquiring about details of the applicant's asylum case, including the psychiatric assessment and treatment he had previously received 

  • looking into why the applicant's tenancy had been terminated 

Domestic abuse inquiries

Authorities must follow the definition of domestic abuse set out in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

Chapter 21 of the Code of Guidance outlines how inquiries should be made.

The local authority should make it clear that applicants can bring a friend or a specialist domestic abuse support worker to appointments.

Local authorities should ask the applicant for an account of their experience. Where this has been documented by a domestic abuse service the authority should use existing statements to avoid asking the victim to re-live their experience.

Local authorities should not approach the alleged perpetrator. The authority can ask for information from friends, relatives, social services, and the police with the applicant's consent. The application could be the first time the applicant has disclosed the abuse. Authorities should not apply a blanket approach requiring corroborating or police evidence.

Local authorities should not ask the applicant to return to their property to collect documentation or evidence if there is any chance this could put them in danger.

Authorities should recognise that the applicant might be in significant distress. A housing officer trained in dealing with people who have experienced abuse should conduct the interview. Applicants should be given the option of being interviewed by an officer of the same sex.

Public sector equality duty

Local authorities are required to consider the public sector equality duty at each stage of the decision-making process.

Local authority policies and decision-making processes should not directly or indirectly discriminate against anyone on the basis of a protected characteristic. Disability and race are examples of protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.

The authority must decide whether there is a real possibility that the applicant or any member of their household has a protected characteristic that requires enhanced inquiries.[18]

Inquiries must be carried out carefully and in line with the equality duty where the applicant has a protected characteristic. The local authority must give fuller reasons if a negative decision is made.[19]  

To comply with the public sector equality duty the local authority might have to treat some people more favourably than others.[20]  

Burden of proof in homelessness inquiries

The burden of proof rests with the local authority.[21] This means it is up to the local authority to find the evidence for their decision.

The applicant must provide the local authority with a reason to believe that they are homeless or threatened with homelessness. 

It can speed up the process if the applicant provides evidence of their situation, such as: 

  • the notice they have received from their landlord 

  • their passport or ID card 

  • medical information from a doctor or hospital

  • birth certificates or a letter from their midwife 

Making the authority aware of relevant matters 

The applicant should tell the local authority about everything that could be relevant to their application.

It is difficult to challenge a homelessness decision on the basis that the authority failed to inquire about an issue it had no reason to believe was relevant.[22]  

False statements and withholding information

It is a criminal offence for an applicant or anyone else to make a false statement, or withhold information a local authority would reasonably require, with the intention of obtaining housing or homelessness assistance.[23]

A person can be fined if they are convicted of an offence of making a false statement, withholding information or failing to notify a change of circumstance.[24]

Applicant's duty to notify changes of circumstances

An applicant must notify an authority of any material change in circumstances that occurs before they are notified of the authority's decision on their application.

Failure to do so is a criminal offence unless the applicant can show that they were not given an explanation of their duty in ordinary language or they have some other good reason for not disclosing the change of circumstances.[25]

Local authority refusal to make inquiries

Where the authority has a reason to believe someone is homeless or threatened with homelessness, they must accept an application and make inquiries. The applicant can challenge the authority's refusal to accept an application and make inquiries by issuing a claim for judicial review. Claims for judicial review are in scope for legal aid.

Failure to make adequate or sufficient inquiries is a common reason for homelessness decisions being quashed by the courts.[26] 

An applicant could challenge the authority's decision if it failed to make an inquiry that no reasonable authority could fail to regard as necessary.[27] 

Homelessness decision after inquiries

After completing their inquiries, the local authority must establish what duty is owed and provide the applicant with a written notification of its decision.[28]

Inquiries are carried out throughout the homeless application process so the applicant might receive a series of decisions as one duty ends and another becomes engaged.[29]

Once the authority has decided that the applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness and eligible, it must:[30]

The plan identifies steps necessary to prevent or relieve homelessness.

If the authority has decided that the applicant is not owed a duty, it should provide this decision and their reasons in writing to the applicant. The applicant can challenge the decision by asking for an internal review

Last updated: 13 June 2022

Footnotes

  • [1]

    s.184(1) Housing Act 1996; para 18.5 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [2]

    s.184(1) Housing Act 1996; chapters 6 and 7 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [3]

    s.198(A1) Housing Act 1996 inserted by s.5(8) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; para 10.37 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [4]

    s.188 Housing Act 1996.

  • [5]

    para 11.3 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [6]

    paras 11.13 - 11.14, 21.20 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [7]

    R v Dacorum BC ex parte Brown (1989) 21 HLR 405, QBD.

  • [8]

    R (on the application of IA) v City of Westminster LBC [2013] EWHC 1273 (Admin).

  • [9]

    s.184(1) Housing Act 1996.

  • [10]

    R v Tower Hamlets LBC ex parte Rouf (1989) 21 HLR 294, QBD.

  • [11]

    R v Newham LBC ex parte Lumley (2001) 33 HLR 124, QBD; R v Ealing LBC ex parte Chanter [1992] December 1992 Legal Action 22.

  • [12]

    s.213 Housing Act 1996.

  • [13]

    R v Dacorum BC ex parte Brown (1989) 21 HLR 405, QBD.

  • [14]

    para 18.4 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [15]

    para 21.32 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [16]

    R v Newham LBC ex parte Lumley (2001) 33 HLR 124, QBD; R v Lambeth LBC ex parte Carroll (1987) 20 HLR 142, QBD.

  • [17]

    R (on the application of IA) v City of Westminster LBC [2013] EWHC 1273 (Admin). 

  • [18]

    Birmingham CC v Wilson [2016] EWCA Civ 1137.

  • [19]

    Hotak v Southwark LBC : Kanu v Southwark LBC : Johnson v Solihull MBC [2015] UKSC 30; Pieretti v Enfield LBC [2010] EWCA Civ 1104.

  • [20]

    s.149(6) Equality Act 2010.

  • [21]

    Bellouti v Wandsworth LBC [2005] EWCA Civ 602; Hawa Abdullah Ali v Newham LBC, [2000] Bow CC, Legal Action November 2000; R v Woodspring DC ex parte Walters (1984) 16 HLR 73 QBD.

  • [22]

    R v Southampton CC ex parte Ward (1984) 14 HLR 114, QBD.

  • [23]

    s.214(1) Housing Act 1996; para 18.10 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [24]

    s.214(4) Housing Act 1996.

  • [25]

    s.214(2) Housing Act 1996.

  • [26]

    R v Camden LBC ex parte Cosmo (1997) 30 HLR 817, QBD; R v Tower Hamlets LBC ex parte Bibi (1991) 23 HLR 500, QBD; R v Westminster CC ex parte Iqbal (1988) 22 HLR 215, QBD.

  • [27]

    R v Nottingham CC ex parte Costello (1989) 21 HLR 301, QBD.

  • [28]

    s.184(3) Housing Act 1996; para 11.3 Homelessness Code of Guidance, Feb 2018.

  • [29]

    s.184(1)(b) Housing Act 1996.

  • [30]

    s.189A(1) Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.3(1) Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; para 11.7 Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, MHCLG, Feb 2018.