12th July, 2021
Last December, I agreed to represent an elderly lady in a dispute over Housing Benefit with one of the London Boroughs. Her claim was refused, essentially because she was renting from her son, and the Council was unwilling to accept the Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST) agreement they had created, was legally enforceable and wholly commercial in nature. This, despite the AST, in question, having been produced by a solicitor and which had been duly signed and witnessed by the contracting parties.
Prior to this arrangement, her son had accommodated her, at no charge, within his own family home, but as his 2 children grew older they needed more space, hence the 2nd property and mortgage.
Her son helped her lodge an appeal in November 2019. It took the Council 11 months to refer the case the Tribunal Service and, it looked like there would be a further 9 months wait before a Tribunal hearing could be arranged. Thankfully, the Judge supported my client’s appeal, allowing an award and payment, from the original date of claim, producing a £20,000 backdate, which cleared her £12,000 rent arrears and restored the £8000 savings she had used initially in her attempt to pay her rent.
Why did it take so long to resolve?
A combination of Council procrastination and maladministration. Worryingly, this was the fourth occasion I had been asked to assist with an appeal involving Housing Benefit, caused by an associated lack of suitable alternative housing for elderly people and council “mindset”, that close family relatives should not be able to claim Housing Benefit. Contrastingly, the scheme was actually designed to assist people in need of suitable housing and financial assuistance to make it affordable.
It was the Council’s original decision of 13th November 2019 that my client appealed. Once an appeal is lodged, councils are recommended, by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), to either review and revise the decision, in the claimant’s favour or refer the appeal to the Tribunal Service, so the dispute can be adjudicated by an independent and impartial First-tier Judge.
What the Council did, in this case, was try and impede and frustrate the appeal process, and harvest new evidence to support its refusal, by issuing repeated supplementary questions, to my client and her property owner son, over a period of 11 months. Each time they responded, the Council reacted by simply seeking more information and/or clarification.
The Council was aware, from their earlier exchanges with me, that such an approach had been heavily criticised, by both Upper-tier Judges and the LGO. Despite this, the respondent council and other HB departments, throughout the UK, continue to operate, what they refer to as their “reconsideration” process or as others refer to it as a “fishing expedition”. But, unlike Universal Credit, Housing Benefit’s legislation does not contemplate an intermediate stage, before the appeal itself, so the practice is unlawful.
Mr Michael King, the LG Ombudsman, produced a report on HB administration in January 2020. Amongst other things, he mentions in his foreword – “Using case studies based on the real-life experiences of the people who come to us, this report highlights some of the common issues we are seeing. These include families struggling to exercise their right to appeal a council’s decision about their housing benefit entitlement.
At page 10 of his report, you will find a case study relating to Sonia, which mirrors the issues and concerns I have explained above – It states:
“We said that, as a benchmark, the Council should aim to process appeals within four weeks. The council was also wrong to make Sonia appeal again after it reviewed her case. Its review decision did not change, so the Council should have passed Sonia’s case to the tribunal at that point.”
In my attempt to expedite a favourable outcome, I initially wrote to the Council’s Chief Executive, anticipating he would recognise the obvious merit in my client’s case, his staffs’ poor handling of the issues, and be concerned by the deliberatly slow steps they had taken, causing excessive delays, categorised by the LGO as maladministration. But all he did was refer the case back to Housing Benefit, who continued to dig their heels, suggesting their approach was valid and decision justified.
Success was eventually secured by firstly, asking the District Judge to intervene and expedite a hearing, using “temporary” measures introduced to combat delays caused by COVID. Within 2 months of writing, the case was scheduled for a telephone hearing. The appointed Judge ruled in my client’s favour and was extremely critical of the Council’s handling of the case.
If you are experiencing any problems of this nature, either with Councils or DWP, I may be able to assist by offering advice and support to your staff. Call me on 07733 080 389 or email email@example.com
UC Advice & Advocacy Ltd
Tel: o7733 080 389 or 01698 424301