Social services and housing departments told to work together

The case of R (Bempoa) v Southwark council is one which should
be circulated amongst senior staff in all local authorities where
there is both a housing and a social services department, and where
those departments instruct lawyers separately to protect their

Southwark wished to evict Ms Bempoa from the flat she occupied
and the housing department took the appropriate steps. However, Ms
Bempoa brought proceedings against the council as she claimed her
community care needs had not been assessed and that this would
impact on her housing situation.

In court, an undertaking was given on behalf of the council to
carry out the assessments for community carer services, and not to
evict her in the meantime. However, the undertaking was given in
the context of a case against the council acting in its social
services capacity and its lawyers took instructions from the social
services department.

The undertaking was not passed to the housing department, and Ms
Bempoa was evicted. The social services lawyer advised the housing
department to reinstate Ms Bempoa, but this was not done.
Proceedings were brought for contempt of court.

Mr Justice Munby was scathing about the actions of the council.
He underlined the importance of abiding by undertakings given to
the court. He made it very clear that an undertaking bound all
departments of the council however the council decided to arrange
its legal department.

He identified systemic failures in the council’s
procedures as there was no system for informing different
departments of undertakings given to the court. He insisted that if
councils arranged their legal department so that different sections
gave advice to different departments then there must be systems for
communicating between the two departments. The “social services”
lawyer was brought to court to face cross-examination and questions
from the judge as to how the state of affairs had come about.

Comment: Communication problems between housing and social
services departments in unitary authorities are very common. Often
legal departments will claim to be advising either social services
or housing and claim to have no knowledge about the other
department. This judgement is likely to be used in every case where
this argument is raised, and authorities will be expected to
demonstrate effective lines of communication between departments
and between their respective legal advisers.

Stephen Cragg

Doughty Street Chambers



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