Ombudsman to the rescue of beleaguered tenants

A new service for settling disputes is a welcome alternative to recourse to the law, says Nic Cicutti
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Thousands of housing tenants forced into disputes with their landlords face no recourse other than the rickety application of laws they may not understand and which often offer them little protection.

But since 1996, tenants living in housing association properties and landlords who have taken over local authority homes can make use of a new Ombudsman service to settle their disputes.

The Independent Housing Ombudsman scheme aims to provide a fair and effective way of dealing with complaints against member landlords. The Ombudsman, Roger Jefferies, is there to identify failings in the services offered by member landlords and, where necessary, ask them to change the way they work.

Although the scheme includes landlords who have joined it voluntarily, including the subsidiaries of "social landlords", very few private landlords have done so.

Even so, despite it being mandatory for housing associations to join only as part of the Housing Act 1996, the scheme is now beginning to attract more than 1,100 complaints each year, up 7 per cent on the previous year.

However, some two thirds of complaints are referred back to the landlords' own dispute procedure for completion, a precondition to be eventually considered by the ombudsman scheme. A further 226 were considered to be outside of the Ombudsman's jurisdiction.

Although formal investigations can be mounted by the Ombudsman and his team of staff, based in London, the scheme also offers scope for formal arbitration between both sides.

Some 26 per cent of complaints in 1996/97 related to disrepair of properties, with a further 17 per cent linked to nuisance and harassment and the landlord's alleged unwillingness or inability to deal with the issue fairly. A similar percentage was concerned with transfer policies and allocations of properties by landlords.

Among the formal investigations were the following cases:

A complaint from tenants of a housing association who were in severe rent arrears, and who had requested an emergency transfer after complaining of harassment from other tenants, which was admitted by the association.

But its staff were unwilling to effect a transfer because of the tenants' rent arrears problem. The Ombudsman found that the landlord had placed its own administration procedures over the need to deal with problems of harassment and ordered it to pay compensation for removal costs, as was association policy.

In another case, New Islington & Hackney Housing Association failed to rehouse a victim of domestic violence for 13 months, lost papers from her file and, when she was rehoused, it was in sub-standard accommodation for 72 further weeks. Only then did the tenants receive a further move to allow permanent work to the property to take place.

The Ombudsman awarded the complainant pounds 1,850 in compensation and ordered the association to review its policies towards domestic violence victims, its transfer arrangements and record-keeping.

In a case that was mediated, tenants of one property complained that it had been subject to substantial building work to put right problems caused by subsidence. The defects then re-appeared and further work was required. The tenants produced pictures demonstrating the difficulties they had faced with the building contractors.

Although they were offered compensation by the housing association, they did not consider this enough. Mediation led to a higher compensation offer, plus an offer of rehousing to another refurbished property.

The Independent Housing Ombudsman is based at Norman House, 105-109 Strand, London, WC2R 0AA. He can be contacted on 0345 125973 (calls charged at local rate).