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LOCAL GOVERNMENT OMBUDSMEN INVESTIGATION REPORTS ISSUED SINCE 3 FEBRUARY 2000

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Findings of maladministration and injustice ...
Findings of maladministration and injustice

Maldon DC (98/B/1691) and

Essex CC (98/B/1791)

Housing grants, social services for adults and housing transfers

'Mrs Smith' (not her real name for legal reasons) first considered adapting her property to meet the needs of her disabled husband in early 1996. She was advised to apply for a disabled facilities grant. The district council assumed that Mrs Smith was in receipt of income support and would not be required to make a contribution towards the cost of the works. Both councils determined that Mrs Smith's proposed works would not be eligible for grant. The district council approved plans which were not acceptable to Mrs Smith.

The district council considered the question of offering Mrs Smith rehousing - before determining eight months later that she was not so entitled - and failed to report to elected members.

The ombudsman found no maladministration by Essex CC. He found maladministration by Maldon DC causing injustice to Mrs Smith.

He recommended that Maldon DC should:

- make an ex gratia payment of£1,000 to Mrs Smith

- deal with any future application by Mrs Smith for a disabled facilities grant as quickly as possible

Cherwell DC (98/B/2633)

Planning consideration/neighbour amenity and enforcement

The council granted planning permission in 1993 for the layout of a golf course next to the home and farm land of 'Mr Field' (not his real name for legal reasons). Mr Field argued that the holes next to his boundary were not built in accordance with the approved plans. When the course opened Mr Field experienced problems with golf balls landing on his land and buildings. The layout of one of the holes was altered and other works were also undertaken to try to improve the situation. The problem did lessen but balls still came over the boundary. The council took enforcement action to achieve the realignment of the two holes in accordance with the approved plans. The appeal against the enforcement action was successful.

The ombudsman considers that the initial consideration of the application was inadequate and amounted to maladministration. Had there been proper consultation then Mr Field would not have experienced such problems from golf balls on his land, especially when the course first opened. He was also put to avoidable anxiety and incurred considerable costs in securing professional advice.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and recommends that the council should pay Mr Field£1,000 and reimburse his reasonable professional costs.

Lambeth LBC (98/A/4947)

Housing benefit

'Mr Walker' (not his real name for legal reasons) is a council tenant. He claimed housing benefit as a student when he moved to his new address in April 1998. His claim was mislaid by the council. He made a new claim which was not assessed until March 1999. His entitlement was then reassessed in June and November 1999.

The ombudsman finds that the council's delay in dealing properly with the claim amounts to maladministration and that it caused Mr Walker injustice. At the ombudsman's request, the council has agreed to pay Mr Walker£400 (which may be offset against outstanding rent arrears) for the delay in dealing with his claim and for the time and trouble to which he has been put.

Ealing LBC (98/A/2322 & 2348)

Housing benefit & local taxation

'Mr Muks' (not his real name for legal reasons) owned a house (address A) jointly with his brother. In October 1995, the building society repossessed address A. Possession was returned to Mr Muks in December 1995; neither Mr Muks nor the building society told the Council about this at the time.

When the building society repossessed address A, Mr Muks went to live with his wife who was living in a privately rented house at address B. He remained at address B after he regained possession of address A because he considered that address A had been made uninhabitable while in the building society's possession.

The council pursued Mr Muks for council tax on address A between October and December 1995 and for later periods. The council obtained liability orders and used bailiffs to seek recovery.

In October 1996 Mr Muks applied from address B for income support for himself and his family. He also completed a form claiming housing and council tax benefit. Income support was awarded. In December 1996 Mrs Muks completed the council's claim form for housing benefit and council tax benefit at address B. She was awarded benefit from October 1996.

In December 1997, the claim for housing benefit and council tax benefit at address B was renewed under Mr Muks' reference number at address A. In February 1998 the claim was referred to the housing benefit investigation team because an officer had noticed that Mr Muks had been claiming council tax benefit as an owner-occupier and Mrs Muks was claiming housing benefit as a tenant. The council subsequently cancelled the housing benefit claim from 8 June 1998. On 2 December 1998 wrote to tell Mrs Muks that there had been an overpayment of housing benefit of nearly£13,000 for address B between October 1996 and June 1998. The council said that the overpayment would be recovered and had arisen because Mr Muks was part-owner of address A. In June 1999, after further information had been provided, the council paid Mr and Mrs Muks' housing and council tax benefit for address B back to the dates when payment had been stopped.

The ombudsman recognises that there were difficulties for the council is dealing with the council tax and housing benefit claims for addresses A and B. Nonetheless, he finds that there was maladministration in the way the council dealt with the claims and, in particular, that the council was at fault for cancelling the housing benefit claim for address B without checking with the DSS because Mr Muks was receiving income support. The ombudsman finds that the maladministration caused injustice. Mr Muks was caused prolonged confusion about his council tax liability at address A. He was taken to court and visited by bailiffs at address B for council tax he did not owe. He was without housing benefit from June 1998 to June 1999. And Mr Muks was caused avoidable time, worry and trouble. The ombudsman recommends that the council should pay Mr Muks£750 and waive all the court and bailiff costs on his council tax accounts.

Ealing LBC (98/A/4300)

Local taxation & housing benefit

The council received a claim for council tax benefit from 'Ms Lane' (not her real name for legal reasons) in September 1998. By 18 November it had still not dealt with her claim. Yet it issued a summons for over£388, the amount of council tax it said Ms Lane owed. The council finally decided the claim on 7 December and, as a result, Ms Lane owed nothing. Yet on 10 December the council obtained a liability order against Ms Lane for all£388. Subsequently the council waived the court costs and took no action on the liability order.

The ombudsman finds that the council's delay in determining the claim and the way it decided to issue a summons and obtain the liability order was maladministration.

The ombudsman says he is astonished by the council's suggestion that Ms Lane has not been caused injustice because of the summons and the liability order. He says people find a summons frightening and are very worried by a court order for a debt they do not owe and cannot afford to pay.

The ombudsman recommends that the council should pay Ms Lane£150 and ensure that it does not seek liability orders where the debt arises wholly or mainly from its own failure to determine a claim for benefit.

Local settlement reports

Bolton MBC (98/C/3765)

Council housing management, other

'Mr Maxwell' (not his real name for legal reasons) complained that the council applied its policy of using a notice of an intention to seek possession of his house without proper regard for his individual circumstances, and in an inappropriate and insensitive manner. Mr Maxwell says that, as a result, he suffered distress, anxiety and embarrassment.

The council has a policy of 'zero tolerance' of drug offences on its housing estates. When Mr Maxwell's son, who used his father's address for welfare benefit purposes, was remanded in custody for possession of heroin, the council pinned a notice of intention to seek possession to the front door of Mr Maxwell's home. The council made no enquiries about the circumstances before taking this action. Had it done so it would have discovered that Mr Maxwell was estranged from his son and, since the arrest, had taken steps to see that his son had no access to his property. The council made no more than a token attempt to serve the notice personally, and did not explain to Mr Maxwell that the notice was intended as a 'warning shot', not as a threat to proceed to evict him.

The council has admitted that Mr Maxwell's case was handled inappropriately and has amended its procedures. All cases will now be individually considered; the need to serve a notice personally and the method of service have been addressed.

The council has offered a payment of£100 to Mr Maxwell for the distress and embarrassment caused to him. The ombudsman commends the council for its prompt and positive response to her investigation and considers that the amendment of its procedures and the payment of£100 compensation constitute a satisfactory local settlement of this complaint.

Northumberland CC (99/C/1276)

Social services for children

'Mrs Moore' (not her real name for legal reasons) complained that the council failed to provide her son, a young adult with special needs, with the help he required. She said the council unreasonably maintained that it could not provide help until it knew whether her son's problems were physical or psychological when it was obvious that her son needed practical help irrespective of the cause. Mrs Moore also said that the council took an unreasonable length of time to investigate and report on her complaint about this. She said that, as a result, her son had suffered a loss of self-esteem because he was unable to maintain adequate standards of personal hygiene and that he hardly left the house as a result.

There were lengthy delays in properly assessing Mrs Moore's son's needs, failures to conduct reviews, ongoing failure to communicate appropriately with Mrs Moore and her son, and failure to deal effectively with him because his needs crossed traditional client-group boundaries. The council for much of the period was aware at managerial level that there was a lengthy waiting list for occupational therapy assessments for people with learning disability but none for people with physical disabilities. There was lengthy delay in undertaking an occupational therapy assessment and a further delay in providing a relatively inexpensive aid which, now that it has been provided, has done much to help Mrs Moore's son keep himself clean.

Because the complaint made by Mrs Moore to the council concerned the NHS trust and social services it had been investigated jointly by the council and the trust. The investigation took 14 months.

The council accepts that there were failings and has responded to the ombudsman's investigation by reviewing and changing its procedures and by offering£1,000 compensation for Mrs Moore's son and£250 for Mrs Moore. The ombudsman considers this to constitute a satisfactory settlement of the complaint.

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