Improve the information you publish about the homeless review process with my free guide (see bottom of page). Suitable for a webpage or booklet.
If you follow homelessness case law you may have noticed a case last November where the Court of Appeal suggested that the information a council gave to a homeless person was deficient.
The case was Birmingham CC v Wilson  EWCA Civ 1137.
The case involved a homeless applicant, Ms Wilson, who was owed the main housing duty. However she refused a final offer of accommodation that the council made to end the duty. The council considered the accommodation was suitable. As Ms Wilson refused the offer the council unsurprisingly decided that its duty to accommodate her had ended.
However, Ms Wilson could have accepted the offer and requested a review. This would have had the advantage that if her review was unsuccessful (which it subsequently was) she would still have had accommodation available to her.
When Ms Wilson sought to complain that the offer was unsuitable she was given a 'Homeless Decision Review Form'. The form had various options she could tick, including:
Ms Wilson initially ticked box f, but then crossed that out and ticked box g instead, thereby indicating her wish to refuse the offer.
The judge giving the leading judgment made the following observation:
Although we have not been shown all the literature provided to Ms Wilson, I have my doubts whether the consequences of each option [including the opportunity to both accept the offer of accommodation and request a review] were really fully explained to Ms Wilson in a way she could understand. The offer letter of 1 September 2014 only included this (to my mind, rather uninformative) statement on the subject: "You can ask for a review if you do not agree that the accommodation is suitable. You have this right whether you decide you accept or refuse this offer of accommodation".Lord Justice Sales, at para 18
LJ Sales went on to observe that the Review Form also did not explain the consequences of each option.
He then suggested:
It would be desirable for the Council to review how it presents this choice between acceptance of offer plus review and rejection of offer plus review, and the consequences of each option, in its standard forms and any literature
These observations were not actually relevant to the legal issue being decided, and the council succeeded in their appeal. And it's difficult to reach an opinion on whether and to what extent the comments were justified, because (as the judge acknowledged) we don't have all the literature given to Ms Wilson (nor for that matter details of what advice was given verbally).
However, the judge's comments do demonstrate a common dilemma for housing staff who write documents and publish information for customers.
How much information should we give to housing applicants, and when and how should we give it?
How can we strike the right balance and ensure that applicants are adequately informed but not overloaded with unnecessary information?
If you give too much information at the wrong time you'll bamboozle the customer. For example if someone is about to become homeless you need to spend the limited time available focussing on finding a housing solution and dealing with the urgent issues arising, rather than telling them everything they'll possibly ever need to know. (I've yet to meet a council officer who thinks it's a good idea to present a homeless person with reams of paperwork when they first ask for help).
On the other hand if the applicant can't access the right information when they need it they may be at risk of suffering an injustice. And it can cost councils and social landlords time and money if a customer doesn't understand 'how the system works' or their responsibilities.
In Ms Wilson's case it may have been possible to avoid undertaking a costly review if she had understood the options and the consequences of refusing the offer (although to be fair to Birmingham it's far from clear from the judgment whether this would have been the case).
Obviously many social landlords have moved a lot of information historically given out in hard copy onto their websites. This surely has to be the right approach when most people have a phone and internet access.
And the trend towards mobile/tablet-friendly web pages that deliver information in 'bite site chunks' has the potential to make information much more digestible.
However, at the same time I'm so often left unimpressed when visiting many websites. Often there just isn't the basic information that customers will routinely need.
In the worst cases you end up wondering whether a conscious decision has been made to strictly limit the information that's publicly available (and in relation to homelessness it's often unclear from websites even how to make a homeless application. Something that will have to be rectified before the Homelessness Reduction Bill is implemented, if councils want to facilitate effective prevention).
In short, if you want your customers to be informed and you want to reduce unnecessary customer contact it's essential that there's adequate information available for the customer to access if and when they need it.
The provision of comprehensive online information can become an integral way of how customers obtain information about your service. Staff can then refer customers to the online information.
Personally I thought that the explanation from the final offer letter quoted by LJ Sales was perfectly clear and concise.
For those involved in publishing information the more pertinent question in the particular Birmingham v Wilson scenario perhaps should be:
would an applicant in Ms Wilson's situation be aware of how they could access more information if they were unsure as to what the letter meant, or unsure about their options at that point in time?
The Wilson case got me thinking about how many questions a homeless applicant might need answered when asking the council to review an adverse decision, i.e. all those things you might need to communicate if and when the applicant asks a question about the review process.
So I wrote a guide.
Text for webpage or guide
Text for webpage or guide
If you download the guide you'll see that my approach is to:
Other documents for councils and social landlords are available in the Resources section that deal with homeless reviews:
All you need to do is: