We all know the difficulties of finding accommodation in the private sector. In R (Jalal) v Greenwich LBC  EWHC 1848 a family found intentionally homeless applied for assistance under section 17 of the Children Act. The authority found that the children were not in need as the parents were in work and had been given time to find alternative accommodation, whether in the borough or elsewhere. The parents submitted evidence that their efforts to find accommodation but had been unsuccessful. Indeed they submitted evidence that in January and February 2016 they had been on the point of securing a home in the private sector on two occasions but both opportunities had fallen through at the last minute.
In the proceedings, the Claimant made the somewhat obvious point that in assessing need, it was need at the time of the assessment that mattered and that there was a duty to keep the assessment under review as new information came in. Given the failure to find anywhere, the children had to be found in need whether or not it was the fault of the parents. Any alternative decision was perverse. The authority's factual findings included: (i) a finding that the parents squandered the opportunity to secure housing for their children when it had been given to them; (ii) in any event the authority did not believe the parents' assertion that they could not find anywhere.
Although illustrative of the way in which decisions about credibility are becoming more central to local authority strategies for gatekeeping section 17 applications, the case is also of note for the manner in which the court came down firmly on the side of the authority when looking at the culpability of the parents for their failure to search for accommodation at an earlier stage. The court held that the authority could rely on the absence of any steps taken by the parents to secure housing. It was rational for the authority to justify a finding that the children were not in need as their parents had failed to properly secure housing when they could have done so. The logic of that finding is somewhat stretched but as a policy decision in support of overwhelmed local authorities, it remains a considerable hurdle for those advising claimants.
As a safety net of last resort section 17 of the Children Act 1989 has its fair share of holes in the netting. Those advising parents must ensure that there is a solid evidential basis for any assertion that housing cannot be secured by their clients. Parents need to know that the current judiciary is unlikely to be sympathetic to those who cannot show that they have tried to help themselves before coming to the authority for assistance.
Mr Chataway says "a child without accommodation is a child in need". ... [and] the Defendant's task was to address the current needs of the children ... [T]his would be to take a restricted approach ... I do not think that the local authority can be expected to ignore how the family had got to this point ... It is indeed entitled to decide ... that "your client has had sufficient opportunity to secure alternative accommodation" given the time that had elapsed and the lack of effort by the family to find other accommodation. If this were not so it would be open to parents to ... ignore the housing needs of the children and ... expect the state to provide.