Improving Legal Literacy: Homelessness Law and Legislation
Authors: Geoff Davies – Housing Law Specialist Advisor (CASNS)
Sharon Sharman – Director (VOICES)
As a housing specialist from Staffordshire North & Stoke Citizens Advice (CASNS), I have been working within the VOICES team since October 2018. This built on the success of a similar role in benefits advice. The aim of the role was to support VOICES coordinators to achieve better outcomes for their customers in individual cases and to bring about wider system change by providing legal advice and support. I worked alongside the VOICES team to identify cases where specialist housing advice was needed to bring about solutions for customers, but also to identify system blockages affecting a wider group of people experiencing multiple disadvantages. Part of my role was also to try and empower service coordinators to better advocate on behalf of their customers by improving their legal knowledge of housing issues.
Working alongside the VOICES team helped us identify the most common housing issues affecting this customer group and the gaps in the team’s knowledge. It quickly became clear that the approach of many coordinators was to consider whether a decision or process was ‘fair’ to their customer, rather than whether it was a correct legal decision which could then make it difficult to effectively challenge poor decision making and system blockages. To help coordinators to see their customer’s issues from a more legalistic perspective, I worked alongside workers to devise a bespoke training session in homelessness and allocations; these included practical case-studies and activities in the areas most experienced by their customers. This was delivered face to face during 2019.
Legal Literacy in partner agencies
One of VOICES legacy projects over the last twelve months has been to promote greater legal literacy among partner organisations. The VOICES / CASNS model is one of a collaborative legal approach. This aims to change unfair systems; develop collaboration amongst partners and develop learning across the sector and its partners. Research carried out by the Public Law Partnership in January 2020 into legal literacy found that, as well as resulting in better outcomes for service users,
“The key initial impact of legal capacity building is to empower organisations. The potential longer-term consequences are policy impact, further empowerment of individuals and the mobilization of groups and communities.”
Supporting systems changers using collaborative legal approaches
– Public Law Partnership Research Paper (January 2020)
It was agreed that the best way to achieve greater legal literacy within partner agencies was to build on the training we had provided to VOICES staff and develop a series of bespoke workshops to deliver to partners through the citywide learning programme. initially in the areas of homelessness and allocations, together with some practical tools which they could use in their daily work with customers.
The aim of the training was not to make attendees legal experts in the field, as this would be impractical and potentially problematic. Instead, the training had several aims including.
- Giving attendees a better understanding of the homeless and allocations process so that they could help navigate their customers through it.
- Give attendees an understanding of their customer’s legal rights in this area so that they could effectively challenge poor decision making.
- Give attendees the confidence and knowledge to know when something doesn’t look right, so that they can then seek specialist legal advice for their customer.
- Provide attendees with some practical tools that they could use with customers going forward to help bring about better outcomes for their customers.
- Give attendees the knowledge and confidence to bring about system change for their customers in homelessness and allocations.
Themes and content of the bespoke learning opportunities
The content of the learning sessions were co-designed from consultation with services to identify specific needs and based on the experience gained working with the VOICES team as described above. The following subject areas were covered.
- The homelessness journey & the Homelessness Reduction Act
- Interim accommodation
- Homelessness – unreasonable to continue to occupy
- Suitability and Intentionality
- Priority need and the Duty to Refer
- Local connection & Duty to protect property
- Challenging homelessness decisions
Training was provided fortnightly over a period of eight months beginning in January 2021 and ending in August 2021 and was co-delivered online with members of the VOICES team. There were eight subject areas in total, with two subject areas covered each session; and each session was delivered four times during the above period. This was designed to enable as many workers as possible to attend the sessions.
The decision to provide the training via zoom was ultimately dictated by the pandemic, but it did provide several advantages:
- It allowed us to provide the training to more workers.
- It allowed workers to fit the training around their usual work.
- It allowed us to facilitate repeat sessions, enabling more workers to attend the trainings
- It was cheaper to deliver the training as we did not need to book training rooms and print off lots of training materials.
- The breakout rooms facility in zoom worked well for case-study discussions.
- Learner technical problems did make it difficult at times for people to access all the training
- It was more difficult to deliver some of the exercises where there was more paperwork involved
- It was more challenging via zoom to observe whether people always understood the material
My conclusion overall would be that the benefits of zoom training outweighed the negatives, with the main advantage being that it offered busy frontline workers the flexibility to fit the training into their everyday jobs.
Following this series of sessions the project team conducted a second consultation with partner organisations with a view to developing more opportunities to meet remaining needs. It was identified that there were new teams recruited within Concrete who responded to the consultation to request sessions for their social prescribing team. In November and December 2021, we delivered opportunities weekly to ensure that the new staff had received the knowledge before the legacy project closed.
As part of the training materials, in addition to the legal information, we have provided practical tools to assist workers in their work with customers that include:
- A flowchart illustrating the homelessness journey and duties owed by a local authority at each stage.
- A list of information that a customer may wish to take along to a homelessness interview.
- A list of typical questions that may be asked by the LA at a homelessness interview.
- A sample letter making a homelessness application.
- A case reference and list of issues that a local authority must consider before ending interim accommodation.
- Links to the current Homelessness Code of Guidance and the Housing Act 1996.
- NHAS Vulnerability Guide 2019
- SOT CC’s Allocations Policy
- Case study answers dealing with the most common homelessness & allocations issues faced by customers
From April to December 2021 services who engaged in these Housing Law workshops include Brighter Futures – various teams, Stoke City Council (Adult Social Care), Aspire Housing, Expert Citizens C.I.C., Staffordshire Police, Probation service, DWP and various teams from Concrete.
This has resulted in improved legal literacy knowledge for over 140 frontline staff across the city who are now equipped to pass on their learning to colleagues.
It is very difficult at this stage to demonstrate whether improved legal literacy learning has an impact on systems change. However, we do know that, through embedding learning and specialist advisors within services, we can achieve numerous positive changes for customers and, whilst working in this project I have also contributed to the VOICES prison release and hospital discharge projects that have coproduced recommendations for system leaders, managers, and frontline staff.
The evidence from the Public Legal partnership, referenced above, found that it takes time for legal literacy to have an impact across organisations, typically eighteen to twenty-four months. There is also the issue of how best to build on and consolidate legal literacy within partner agencies going forward, whether this is through further training, toolkits, or access to specialist advice or indeed, a combination of all three. It’s very positive that the specialist welfare benefit advice model is included in the new Changing Futures structure in Stoke-on-Trent; services should remain aware of the need for housing law knowledge and how to effectively support customers with assertive advocacy and accurate information. In future, as legislation and local policies change there will be a need to change the content of these workshops to ensure the very best support for our customers and the highest level of skills for our frontline colleagues.