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Law Report: Regina v Poole Borough Council, Ex parte Cooper. Queen's Bench Division (Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC). 3 October 1994.: Inquiries about homeless person not confidential

The information solicited and received by a local housing authority in performing its statutory duty to make inquiries about the homelessness of an applicant claiming accommodation is not confidential and has to be disclosed to the applicant.

Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, sitting as a deputy judge, quashed the council's decision that the applicant, Jenni Cooper, was intentionally homeless.

In March 1993, the applicant was granted a one-year tenancy by a private landlord. She occupied the premises with her baby son. In June 1993, the landlord served a notice seeking possession of the property on the ground that nuisance had been caused to adjoining occupiers, despite two written and two verbal warnings. The county court ordered the applicant to give possession in October 1993. She applied to the council for accommodation as a homeless person under the Housing Act 1985.

The council wrote to the landlord for assistance in its inquiries under section 62. The landlord, replying in strict confidence, told the council that her boyfriend had moved in and created problems.

The landlord also described an incident, after the applicant had moved out, when his car's tyres had been slashed in his driveway and the bodywork scratched, saying that although he had no proof, he was convinced that it was the applicant's boyfriend or friends.

The council gave the substance of the information received from the landlord to the applicant but did not disclose the correspondence and did not refer to the tyre-slashing incident. The council decided that the applicant's homelessness was intentional. The applicant applied for judicial review of the council's decision on the ground that the failure to disclose the correspondence to the applicant was unfair to the applicant and constituted a procedural irregularity.

William Flenley (McQueen Yeoman, Poole) for the applicant; Timothy Straker (Council Solicitor) for the council.

SIR LOUIS BLOM-COOPER QC said that the landlord's letter was highly biased against the applicant. The tyre-slashing incident occurred after the applicant ceased to occupy the premises, but if true, reflected discreditably on the applicant.

The issue raised was whether the council's correspondence was confidential and so not disclosable.

A local authority could not allow a third party who supplied information to affect adversely the relationship between the claimant to housing and the local housing authority. A local authority which was statutorily required to make inquiries received information impressed with a statutorily imposed duty to use that information for the public purpose of assessing and evaluating an applicant's homelessness.

A local authority should invariably tell a prospective informant that anything said might have to be made available to the homeless person. Failure by the local authority to impose such a condition on the supplier of information could not absolve the local authority from its duty to disclose the information, if fairness to the homeless person demanded it.

Where information was unsolicited, confidentiality did not arise and the local authority had the unimpeded duty to disclose the information.

In the absence of any statutory indicator about the status of information received under section 62, the court would always order disclosure to the applicant for the purpose of ensuring fairness to the applicant in the local authority's assessment and evaluation of the material.

The landlord's letter contained information that materially affected the applicant's case on the issue of her intentionality.

The tyre-slashing incident must have influenced the council in assessing the credibility of her claim that she had not been responsible for the nuisance. In fairness, the applicant was entitled to have that information and to refute it, if she could. The council's decision would be quashed.