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Aster Group to pay £5,700 after wheelchair user with inadequate flooring served section 21 notice

The Housing Ombudsman has made two findings of severe maladministration against Aster Group, for its handling of flooring complaints at the start of the tenancy and the associated complaint handling.
Housing Ombudsman Richard Blakeway

During the case, the landlord repeatedly failed to have sufficient regard for its obligations under the Equality Act 2010. This caused its resident, who is in a wheelchair, distress and impacted both her mobility and her ability to settle into the property.

Because of the failings, the Devon resident was forced to use a storage facility for five months for her possessions, unable to remedy the flooring herself due to low income and had to live with boxes in the bathroom and bedroom, impacting her use of the property.

Given the potential hazards the flooring presented to a disabled resident, the landlord was expected to ensure that it was safe when the home was handed over. However, it failed to consider reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, where a resident is known to have a disability that may impact their access of services.

Instead of looking into the resident’s concerns about the flooring with its contractors and operatives, the landlord instead said the problems must have arisen since the resident moved in.

The landlord’s insurers account also differed from the landlord, in that it said carpets were lifted and the voids work confirmed removal of carpets too. This lack of assurance from the landlord was again not satisfactory.

Subsequent evidence provided to the Ombudsman after the determination further proved that the landlord knew about the condition of the floor before the resident moved in, and poor records did not allow it to action this effectively.

The landlord also issued the resident with a Section 21 notice which, despite being invalid, caused the resident distress and there seemed to be no reasonable or proportionate reason for it. This also resulted in significant legal costs for the resident to assist with pursuing her complaint, after her Legal Aid ran out, because the landlord refused to progress the complaint due to the resident’s solicitor helping with the claim. The letter from the solicitor made clear it was not using legal proceedings but a third party helping the resident move through the landlord’s complaint procedure.

These issues combined with extensive delays in the complaints procedure led to another finding of severe maladministration finding for the landlord’s complaint handling.

Whilst the landlord acknowledged and compensated for some of its handling, this did not sufficiently reflect the time, trouble and expense the resident went to.

The Ombudsman required the landlord to undertake several reviews following its investigation. This includes how possessions-related notices such as Section 21s are issued to ensure they are evidence-based with appropriate oversight and reviewing its obligations under the Equality Act and associated training needs.

On top of the compensation, the Ombudsman has ordered the landlord to apologise to the resident and work with its insurer to see if there is any further money the resident is entitled to as a result of the failings.

In its learning from the case, the landlord said it has developed training in line with the Equality Act and created a Complaints Learning Group.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “Throughout its handling of this case, the landlord did not have sufficient regard of the resident’s human rights in relation to adequate housing.

“It did not demonstrate that it took sufficient care when letting the property, or demonstrate that it responded appropriately when concerns about the flooring were raised after the resident moved in.

“It had a responsibility to ensure a property was fit for human habitation and to take steps to ensure the flooring did not put a disabled resident at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to residents who are not disabled.

“Despite the landlord knowing of the residents’ vulnerabilities, at times it came across as unhelpful, unsympathetic, and heavy-handed.

“We would encourage all landlords to read our Spotlight report on Knowledge and Information Management, which covers the need for landlords to abide by their duties in the Equality Act. On several occasions the landlord did not do this during the case and left a vulnerable resident in a precarious state.”

In all cases of severe maladministration, the Ombudsman invites the landlord to provide a learning statement.

Aster Group learning statement

We want to publicly apologise to our customer in this case. We agree that our normal high standards were not met. We have been liaising directly with our customer to make sure that her home is now up to the standard we would expect. This includes replacing and fitting vinyl flooring in the property. We have also paid her compensation in recognition of where we have gone wrong.

As a direct result of this complaint, we have updated our ‘lettable standard’ for accessible homes so for example, as a minimum, we should always fit appropriate flooring in these homes. We’ve also worked with specialists to review our training, so services are delivered in the most accessible way. In line with the Equality Act, colleagues complete mandatory training which provides the skills to give customers the best possible experience.

Since 2020, when this complaint was made, we’ve reviewed our internal lettings process and complaints procedures. We’ve rolled out additional training for our complaints team and updated our processes to help customers with vulnerabilities and / or disabilities get individual support throughout the lettings process. In 2020 we introduced virtual viewings for our customers, which would have benefitted our customer in this case, had it been available at the time.

Our new Complaints Learning Group includes customer representatives and helps us identify where we can make our service offering stronger. This will enable us to be a better company, offering higher levels of customer service.

We fully accept the judgement in this case. We remain committed to listening to our customers to ensure we deliver the services they deserve.

 

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