On 5 April 2017 Cornerstone Barristers hosted the inaugural Bryan McGuire Memorial Lecture on homelessness. The lecture was delivered by His Honour Judge Jan Luba QC.
The focus of the lecture was on methods of dispute resolution in disputes about Local Authorities’ homelessness duties. At first glance this may seem a fairly dry topic, but HHJ Luba presented some startling statistics – or rather the apparent lack of statistics – about dispute resolution in homelessness today.
What we do know
HHJ Luba began by informing us that in 2016, Local Authorities across the country decided a total of 116,000 homeless applications. Around half of these resulted in acceptance of the full housing duty (i.e. that the Local Authority has a duty to provide the applicant with housing). The other half – around 55,000 – were refused.
55,000 refusals is a pretty high number. You can add to that number the people who have the benefit of the full housing duty, but may be unhappy with aspects of that decision, for example if they believe the accommodation offered to them is unsuitable. In many cases both groups of people will have the right to request an internal review, and following this appeal to the county court.
It surely follows that if there are 55,000 negative decisions, plus the people who are unhappy with the way the housing duty owed to them has been fulfilled, then you will end up with a lot of reviews and appeals.
What we don’t
In fact, we don’t actually know how many reviews and appeals there are. One of the most alarming issues highlighted by HHJ Luba was the fact that there are simply no published statistics on any of these issues. Local Authorities are not required to publish the number of internal reviews requested, let alone provide information about the outcomes. There are also no statistics published by the courts as to how many homelessness appeals they receive.
One would hope that, at least, Local Authorities gather this information internally so that they can identify areas of weakness. For example, if a Local Authority is consistently successfully challenged regarding an aspect of its decision making, it is unlikely to be able to allocate the necessary resources to tackling this problem if the data isn’t collected. Even if Local Authorities do retain this information internally, it ought to be published. It is essential that this information is shared transparently so that government authorities can be held to account if they are failing in their duties – or, alternatively, so that they can demonstrate where things are going right.
HHJ Luba pointed out that much of this information, so far as it is recorded by Local Authorities, could be obtained by way of a Freedom of Information Act request.
What is the reality?
HHJ Luba had, however, tried to get some information about how many disputes are raised through other sources, such as the number of legal aid applications made in respect of all housing cases. The information he found was even more worrying. It suggested that the number of challenges brought may be a tiny proportion of the number of cases decided. This surely means that there are potentially thousands of people across the country who have received incorrect or flawed decisions and are left homeless, without any recourse for challenging those decisions. Often these are vulnerable people who may not have the confidence or ability to bring a challenge without the help of a professional.
One figure which stood out in HHJ Luba’s analysis was in respect of the volume of legally aided housing work. The latest quarterly legal aid statistics, published in March 2017, stated that there was a 12% drop in legal aid activity on housing cases between December 2015 and December 2016. That is an alarming amount. Given that homelessness is on the rise, surely the reason for this must be shrinking supply in the face of increasing demand? Are the legal aid cuts introduced in 2013 continuing to have an impact on the ability of advisors to provide people with the help they need? And, in light of the upcoming general election on 8 June, will the political parties campaigning for our vote make a firm commitment to tackling homelessness in their manifestos, and offer meaningful ways of doing this?