Free HRA letters - inferring an application has been withdrawn when no contact

04.04.2018

One of the lessons from Wales of implementing the homelessness reforms is that a higher proportion of homeless applicants 'fall out of' the statutory assessment process. Homeless officers will need to effectively manage cases where applicants don't maintain contact now the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 has come into force.

Photo of pigeon carrying post

Today's free template letters:

The Welsh experience

If you speak to Welsh homeless officers and ask them about how they've found the new rules - people who actually take housing applications; not those 'housing policy' types who write reports and speak at conferences - one thing they're likely to mention is a high drop-out rate.

English staff will already be familiar with this problem. You're often left wondering what happened to a homeless applicant when letters and calls go unanswered. When I was a homeless officer I often thought pigeon post might be more effective for some applicants.

While the reforms aim to ensure everyone who's homeless or at risk of homelessness is offered a personalised assessment and practical help, there will still be a lot of people who:

  • won't qualify for temporary accomodation (under section 188 of the Housing Act 1996),
  • are unlikely to get enough priority for social housing to have a realistic chance of being offered something in the near future,
  • will experience difficulty accessing affordable accommodation in the private sector.

And even if you're really pleased with your improved assessment process and housing plan (you've probably even given the plan a snazzy design) some of these applicants may not be very impressed with the help that's on offer.

Some people actually want housing when they go to their local housing department. Shock horror.

Now, of course, we want to make sure that we're providing practical help for non-priority cases and doing as much as we can to help them find suitable housing. This is, after all, the whole point of the homelessness reforms.

And it's essential that the assessment and help that's on offer is tailored for the individual, including those who hitherto may not have received meaningful help.

But, if an applicant doesn't see the value in keeping in contact, the likelihood is they won't. And however dynamic and creative housing officers are, they don't have a magic wand. In many areas they're delivering unpalatable messages to applicants reflecting the very 'challenging' local housing market.

What this can mean in practice is that once you've undertaken the initial assessment and agreed a housing plan with the applicant, you might not hear from them again.

Managing the problem

Busy housing options staff will want to concentrate on those cases where the applicant actually wants the help and advice that's on offer.

And, as an assessment officer, you'll want to avoid a situation where your caseload is 'artificially' large because you haven't closed down applications where people have disengaged.

This means actively managing cases where there's no contact.

There are often several possible statutory grounds on which the prevention and relief duty can be ended in such situations. However, the Government would prefer you to treat such cases as 'withdrawn' (Code, para 18.14).

The guidance suggests councils should have procedures in place for dealing with situations where someone fails to maintain contact. It goes on to say:

The Secretary of State considers that it would be reasonable to consider an application closed where the applicant has not responded to any form of contact for 56 days or longer. Any further approach from the applicant after this time may need to be considered as a fresh application. Where an applicant renews contact within 56 days the housing authority will need to consider any change of circumstances that may affect the application.
Code, para 18.14

Many homeless teams will be pre-arranging follow-up telephone appointments during the initial assessment so progress can be reviewed.

One of the steps in the housing plan should be that the applicant keeps such appointments and tells housing options if they need to re-arrange.

Assessment officers would be well advised to keep on top of cases where the applicant hasn't kept this appointment. And here's where software work item reminders and guidance from managers can help.

The statutory guidance says that:

  • procedures should attempt to maintain and regain contact
  • such efforts should take the circumstances and needs of the applicant into account, and
  • using different methods of communication helps prevent, for example, the loss of a mobile phone being fatal (para 14.33).

A procedure could, for example, also provide that:

  • following a failure to keep an appointment an attempt will be made to contact the applicant using all available methods (e.g. email, phone and letter if necessary)
  • where possible a voicemail message should be left, asking the applicant to contact, and
  • if, as a result of these attempts, no contact is made, and a reasonable period has elapsed, a 'minded to' letter is sent.

Ensuring fairness

A 'minded to' letter is highly desirable if you're considering inferring that the applicant wishes to withdraw, i.e. if they haven't explicitly confirmed that they want to cancel their application.

Indeed, there's a basic principle of fairness at play if the applicant is unaware that you're considering interpreting a lack of contact as meaning they no longer want help. What public law describes as the 'right to be heard'.

You're making the applicant aware that this is the decision you're considering.

Secondly, they're being given an opportunity to dispute your interpretation of events and bring to your attention facts of which you're unaware. There may well be alternative explanations for their lack of contact. They may just have lost their phone. Or they might have been ill or in hospital.

This is not to say that the 'minded to' letter needs to long or complex. A simple explanation of how you're proposing to interpret the lack of contact and any failure to get back to you by a certain date should suffice. The above 'minded to' template also explains the implications for the applicant if they don't get back to you.

There's another advantage of issuing a 'minded to' letter. If the applicant doesn't respond, this gives you - bearing in mind there's been no contact with the applicant - another fact which be used to justify a conclusion that, more likely than not, they wish to withdraw their application. The decision has a surer foundation, if you like. In this context it's worth noting the basic principle from public law that there must be facts supporting a decision made by a public authority (in this context, the conclusion that the applicant wishes to withdraw the application).

How long?

The suggestion in the guidance of only closing applications once there's been 56 days of no contact is potentially problematic, particularly if the applicant is already homeless. After all the relief duty is only designed to  last for 56 days. Something else should ordinarily have happened by the 57th day, namely a decision on whether the main housing duty is owed.

I suspect that many homeless managers will want to adopt a shorter period of time in many cases, while making sure that attempts to regain contact are genuine and proactive.

A question therefore arises when formulating a procedure of how quickly the 'minded to' letter is sent and how long applicants are given to respond. Care should be taken to ensure that applicants have enough time to respond to requests for contact. For example, no reasonable authority would arguably send a 'minded to' letter and give just seven days before closing a case. Particularly given that it may take a few days for the applicant to receive the letter and the fact that there might be good reasons - of which you're unaware - as to why they're unable to respond within such a short period of time.

Additional steps for persons who are more likely to disengage

Clearly there will be some cases where, at the very outset, a risk of subsequent disengagement is identified. Procedures should provide that people without accommodation, persons whose accommodation is precarious and those those with chaotic lifestyles, are:

  • provided, wherever possible, with a specific support worker who, as part of their role, can help retain effective contact with the homelessness assessment team
  • advised that they should visit the service and collect copies of letters issued in connection with their application (and the potential implications of not doing so).

Contact after an implied withdrawal

As stated above the guidance mentions the possibility of a subsequent approach being treated as a fresh application.

However, whenever you end a duty the applicant has 21 days within which to request a review of that decision.

If an applicant makes contact within 21 days of an implied withdrawal and it's clear they still want help, this should probably be treated as a request for the discharge to be reconsidered (rather than a fresh application).

I've therefore also uploaded a letter for confirming that the withdrawal has been quashed, so a cancelled application can be 'resurrected'.

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