Concerns about homelessness mediation
Local authority housing departments have a duty to provide accommodation to people who are eligible for assistance, legally classed as homeless, in priority need and not intentionally homeless.
Most homeless 16 and 17 year olds are considered to be in priority housing need, however, the local authority has no duty to house them if they are 'intentionally' homeless. Leaving home may result from disputes with parents, a desire to live alone or the risk of violence or abuse.
Local authorities and homelessness mediation
Many local authorities have introduced mediation schemes, often contracted out to local NfP community or family mediation providers. These schemes are intended to bring the young person together with their family to explore whether it is possible to negotiate a safe and sustainable return home. Organisations like Alone in London have found that mediation can be effective in improving communication and restoring relationships, and that with ongoing support for the family from a caseworker some young people can return home.
The recent Homelessness Code of Guidance (section 12.7) issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) on July 24th states that "generally it will be in the best interests of 16 and 17 year olds to live in the family home, unless it would be unsafe or unsuitable", and the code encourages the use of mediation to promote this.
However, despite much good practice, ASA does have some concerns:
- Often, mediation is offered at a very early stage, before an application for temporary accommodation is made. In effect mediation is not being used as a way of promoting the best interests of the young person, but of delaying or preventing local authority housing responsibilities. An appeal case decided on July 28th this year1 strongly criticised a local authority for using mediation to delay assessment until a young person was over 18.
- In some local authorities there is inadequate consideration of whether or not mediation is appropriate before the local authority refers the case to the mediation provider – where violence or abuse is reported, this needs very careful and sensitive handling.
- One of the core definitions of mediation is that it is offered by a neutral third party, who has no stake in the outcome of the mediation. Where mediation providers are funded by the local authority, it is hard for them to remain entirely neutral: their continued funding may depend on how effective they are at helping the authority to meet its targets to reduce homelessness applications and numbers of people in temporary accommodation.
- Another core definition of mediation is confidentiality. In some local authorities mediators report back the outcome of mediations to the local authority, and the information they provide is being used to assess whether or not homelessness in such cases is 'intentional'.
The DCLG Code makes it clear that local authorities must not avoid their obligations to young people but the continued promotion of mediation in this context raises questions that need further thought and more evidence. If you are aware of a case where homelessness mediation has been offered or used inappropriately, please let ASA know: we would like to monitor this issue.
Val Reid (ADR policy officer)
1 Robinson v Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council
 EWCA Civ 1122