In an article that I published in April 2017 (1) I focused on a caseinvolving a UK Local Authority Ombudsman (LGO) investigation into a complaint made by a homeless person about a substandard service provided by a London local authority. The complainant who was found to have had a number ofsignificant medical issues was not properly assessed by the authority’s housing department. As a result, she was street homeless for around 15 months. After quite a lengthy investigation process the LGO found against the authority and awarded approximately £800.00 in compensation. I made the point that as robust as the LGO eventually was, the costs of the whole exercise including the considerable sum of money that the authority must have expended over a period of two years or so will probably have exceeded the compensation figure, and given the delays, one must question whether justice was actually done.

I was reminded of this article when listening to a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary(2) which addressedthe plight of a 17-year-old young man who, as a result of another authority’s failure to undertake an appropriate assessment, consigned him to unnecessarily lengthy periods of homelessness during which he was forced to live in a tent and was the victim of a serious assault. There was some argument about whether the young man had unreasonably refused at least one offer of assistance. However, the housing team producing the documentary amply demonstrated that the authority had not properly noted a reportedly very significant mental health condition and as it could so easily have done, failed to arrange for an assessment of his capacity.

In many cases such as this, when journalists conduct investigations of this nature, the public body in question usually “declines” any requests for an interview and instead, issues a bland, anodyne statement that says very little.

What makes this particular case stand out is that the responsible director was not only interviewed but in the context of so doing, addressed the full circumstances and ultimately conceded that those responsible within the authority had not instigated all the appropriate, investigative steps. To my ears at least, it appeared that the apology that this director gave was heartfelt and I was particularly struck by his assurance that he would try to fully address the matter and ensure that there was no recurrence.

A cynic might say “too little too late”. The optimistic mediator in me considers that the apology and assurances were genuine. Rather than say “better late than never”, I suggest that lessons have been learnt and with the benefit of a proper explanation the young man and his family have some closure.

Where a local authority assessment of a potentially vulnerable person is an issue, it should not be criticised for implementing procedures. Failure to do so may well result in even more mistakes being made and it may prove difficult for an external investigation such as the LGO to consider the question of accountability.

However, as this case amply demonstrates, local authority procedures are not always sufficiently robust and however inadvertently, mistakes can be made. The accountability process, namely the three stage complaints procedure that individual local authorities are legally required to implement and in which they effectively judge themselves, can take weeks or months to complete. It is only then that the LGO who in many cases will have to conduct a full reappraisal has the opportunity to investigate and follow through a process that itself may take weeks or months before a final report can be completed.

I therefore suggest that particularly in cases such as those referred to above where there are contentions about vulnerability and significant safety concerns, local authorities would be best served by calling in an external mediator and facilitator who could assist all involved to take a long hard look at matters at an early stage. The mediator and facilitator would not act in any form of investigative or judicial capacity. However, by asking the right questions and listening to the parties’ concerns at an early stage, those with responsibility for any attendant decision-making process could be assisted so that any deficiencies could be identified and remedied and any outstanding part of the assessment process identified, possibly with agreed timescales for implementation.

This type of process would not be suitable to each and every single case. But in cases where there is vulnerability, it could very conceivably address the following:

  • ensure that the appropriate result was identified and delivered much sooner than otherwise would have been the case;
  • ensure that the authority in question used its resources much more effectively, possibly saving it hundreds of pounds per case or thousands of pounds per year;
  • particularly if there was some input from an internal local authority monitoring officer, ensuring that lessons were learned, not as much as two years after the event but during the course of individual assessments.

I strongly suspect that if individual local authorities were to endorse my suggestions which we at ASM Plus refer to as Early Dispute Avoidance (EDA), over time they would improve their procedures to the extent that they would probably only need external mediation very occasionally and would substantially cut the number of cases dealt with by complaints officers and indeed, the LGO. Mediators tend to emphasise the notion of “win-win”. My scenario is a particular case in point.

(1) “How much is that dispute inthe window? … The one with the waggly tail”-The true cost of conventional dispute resolution and how mediation could help resolve local authority complaints much more quickly and cost effectively.

(2) File on 4 “My Homeless Son” – BBC Radio 4 – Sunday, 4th November, 2018 – currently available as a BBC podcast