LinkedIn discussion - Housing Ombudsman and the Civil Courts 

This text form part of a larger discussion on LinkedIn which can be found here

By Alice Holtom & Alex Christian

John, we realise that it is your weekend and appreciate you taking the time to engage with this discussion out of working hours!

We are great supporters of the Ombudsman service because as you rightly state, they take into consideration D&I and other factors and circumstances and individuals are able to raise and resolve issues without the risk of costs.

 However we have extensive experience, both personal and professional, of trying to resolve housing disputes, through the tribunal, the civil courts and through the Housing Ombudsman. Each challenge was ultimately successful and although we appreciate that there is a place for each avenue, in our experience, the quickest and most positive outcomes have been achieved through the courts, then tribunal and finally the Ombudsman in that order.

 The tribunal, although without the risk of costs, has its limitations because even if you win, you can't recover any or your legal costs. At £300 just to get a hearing, for low level disputes it is rarely worth it and there is usually no CFA option to get the legal help one might need. When we went through the process, we found it very much like that of the civil courts and beyond what many of your average tenants and leaseholders are able to cope with. A £3000 award but it took a year from application to resolution and it was not an easy process for the layman.

 We have had positive outcomes from the Ombudsman. One was for a disrepair complaint, lodged in April 2018, with the Ombudsman decision October 2022 and compensation of only £800 for their trouble. Another, was severe disrepair complained about in 2017, and a decision by the Ombudsman this week with the disrepair still outstanding and total compensation of only £1000. 

 When we brought our own claim for disrepair in the courts, it was resolved within 6 months of the letter before the claim and that was only because we delayed issuing because of landlord stalling tactics. We got our costs and an award of the full amount claimed of £1800. We can’t help but feel that had the Ombudsman cases referred to above been legally represented from the start, then those cases would have not taken 4-5 years to be resolved, and even if it had, the compensation for 4-5 years of severe disrepair and maladministration would have probably had a zero added.

 The Housing Ombudsman, indeed all Ombudsman are severely under-resourced and so in our experience it takes around a year from raising the issue with the Ombudsman to a decision. However, to get to the Ombudsman, the complainant is required to complete the internal complaints process. Repeated reporting of disrepair is often not recorded as a complaint until the complainant actually records it as a 'formal complaint. Then, depending on the landlord, the response is often not within the timeframes as set out in the Ombudsman Complaint Handling Code and even if it is, the complaints process can take several months to complete. The complainant is then required to wait a further two months from a stage 2 response before being able to access the Ombudsman.  In our case, the landlord did not complete the complaints process for a year. We were awarded £250 for the breach. 

 Even the most organised complainant is unlikely to access the ombudsman for around 4 months and then has a further year or so before getting a decision let alone a resolution. We accept that if the matter were to go all the way to trial, then the time frames might just be comparable with the courts, but with the pressures of costs and legal representation behind them the vast majority of valid claims settle much earlier in the process, providing quicker access to enforceable outcomes and more substantive compensation. The resolution might be achieved even quicker with early mediation. 

We should also not forget that that those who are able to access legal representation are also afforded access to an inspection and report by a qualified and independent surveyor, who will identify and list the disrepair and the causes of that disrepair, as well as the work required to make good. They are supported by professionals to provide a detailed witness statement and are provided the opportunity to explain to the judge in person, the impact that it has had on them and their household. The Housing Ombudsman does not have the resources to provide such a service and to our knowledge, doesn't visit the property or speak to the complainant. It is difficult to see how one can argue that the complainant has the same opportunity to present their case in full or that the Ombudsman can argue that they have the same complete picture as a sitting judge.

 We therefore have to maintain that, in our experience, there is at best, little justification for the statement “Finally, it’s a myth that residents will get better, more timely outcomes through the courts compared with complaints”.