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LOCAL GOVERNMENT OMBUSDMEN INVESTIGATION REPORTS ISSUED SINCE 31 MARCH

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Findings of maladministration causing injustice ...
Findings of maladministration causing injustice

Rochdale MBC (03/C/18598)

Social services for children

'Mr Elliott' (not his real name for legal reasons) complained that the council failed to advise him of the implications of him taking care of a young child, 'Harry' (not his real name), who is not related to him but who is half-brother to his own children. He complains that:

-he was given no financial or other support during the first 15 months he cared for Harry

-the financial implications of seeking a residence order were not explained;

-alternatives to that residence order were not discussed with him

-the council failed to provide the continuing support he needs to care properly for Harry

-the council excluded him from meetings held to discuss Harry's future

-the council did not deal with his complaints properly

The ombudsman found that the council had left a 17-month-old baby with Mr Elliott without undertaking even the most cursory of checks upon either him or his ability to care for a young child. For the following 12 months, largely unsupported by the council, Mr Elliott made legal decisions about Harry which he was simply not entitled to make. The ombudsman concluded that Mr Elliott was either not advised at all or advised badly concerning the options available to him. The ombudsman found that only when Mr Elliott complained to the council that he could no longer care for Harry was it discovered that he had, all along, been entitled to receive some financial support from the council.

The ombudsman found that the council failed to interpret letters from Mr Elliott as formal complaints.

Mr Elliott obtained a residence order for Harry but, had he been accepted as a foster parent, he would have received a great deal more in terms of financial support and general support. Fortunately for Harry, Mr Elliott has proved to be an appropriate carer who has done an excellent job in looking after him.

The ombudsman found maladministration causing injustice to Mr Elliott. The council has agreed to apologise to Mr Elliott and to pay him£8,000. This represents compensation plus the additional monies Mr Elliott would have received if he had been treated as a family and friends carer.

Waltham Forest LBC (04/A/10401)

Council tax benefit & housing benefit

'Mr and Mrs Mohammed' (not their real names for legal reasons) are tenants of a registered social landlord. Mr Mohammed is seriously ill and Mrs Mohammed is his full-time carer. They submitted a new claim for housing and council tax benefits on 16 April 2004, asking for their current claim to be reassessed due to a change in circumstances. The council did not process this. It sent Mr and Mrs Mohammed a reminder about their outstanding council tax on 28 May 2004. After they contacted the council on 3 June 2004 to say that their council tax benefit claim was outstanding, the council put a hold on recovery action until 3 July 2004.

The council then started recovery action, and on 22 July 2004 the magistrates' court issued a summons. Mr and Mrs Mohammed went to the Disablement Information Advice Line Waltham Forest (DIAL) for help, and it submitted a complaint on their behalf to the council on 28 July 2004. The council treated this as correspondence rather than passing it to its complaints team, and then did not reply to it. As a result, no hold was placed on the council tax recovery action. The council wrote to Mr and Mrs Mohammed on 18 August 2004 after the magistrates' court hearing, to say that the court had issued a liability order and warning them that the debt would be passed to the bailiffs if they did not pay this within 14 days. A bailiff's letter was sent on 2 September 2004.

DIAL submitted a complaint on Mr and Mrs Mohammed's behalf at stage two of the council's internal complaints procedure on 6 September 2004. When it received this, the council put a hold on the council tax recovery action.

The council determined Mr and Mrs Mohammed's claim on 3 November 2004. It then withdrew the recovery action, wrote off the costs, paid Mr and Mrs Mohammed the resulting credit balance in the account, and offered to pay£500 as compensation.

The ombudsman finds that the council's delay of almost six months in assessing Mr and Mrs Mohammed's claim for housing and council tax benefits as the result of change of circumstances was unreasonable. He finds that there were three other instances of maladministration by the council:

-its removal of the hold it had placed on Mr and Mrs Mohammed's account to prevent it taking recovery action, without checking that their claim had been assessed

-its inappropriate pursuit of recovery action against them

-its failure to identify DIAL's letter of 28 July 2004 as a complaint.

As a result the Mohammeds suffered injustice through prolonged anxiety.

The ombudsman welcomes the council's offer to pay£500 as compensation. He recommends that the council reviews how it can best ensure that recovery action is suspended until any relevant benefits claim has been dealt with fully, and tells him of its progress in six months' time. He also recommends that the council monitors closely the processes in place for the identification of incoming complaints to the revenues and benefits section.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council (03/C/17507)

Planning enforcement

'Mr Frost' (not his real name for legal reasons) complained about the council's failure to enforce planning conditions for a caravan site next door to his home. He says that this led to the site being used by travellers as a base from which to trade and, as a result, he had to suffer needlessly from noise and disturbance and that his home has been devalued.

The ombudsman found that the council had not been sufficiently proactive in its approach to the planning control of the site. Relevant conditions were not put in place to secure Mr Frost's amenity.

The ombudsman said that the extent to which the council's failures have impacted on Mr Frost's amenity was impossible to assess with precision and probably not as great as he might think. She said she could not take account of any devaluation of his property because, whilst a devaluation might arise during any period where planning control was breached, she did not see why that should remain once the position was regularised. Nonetheless, Mr Frost suffered injustice through the council's maladministration.

The ombudsman recommends that the council pays Mr Frost£500 to account for any unnecessary disturbance and for his time and trouble, and that the council reviews its procedures on enforcement to avoid such problems in future.

Chester City Council (04/C/5309)

Environmental health

'Mr Milton' (not his real name for legal reasons) complained that the council had pursued an unreasonable and improper course of action against him and his wife following an allegation by their neighbour of nuisance from cooking smells from their home. He also complained that the council had failed to address and respond properly to questions he posed about its actions and its investigation of the allegations.

The investigation found that the council had failed to verify its understanding of the legislation and had threatened Mr Milton with an abatement notice when, in fact, it had no power to do so. It failed to answer Mr Milton's questions and failed to investigate the allegations properly.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and the council has agreed to pay Mr Milton the sum of£250 compensation for the anxiety and trouble the actions of its officers caused to him, and will apologise for the mistakes made. The council has already taken action to amend its guidance to officers and improve its record keeping.

Manchester City Council (04/C/4804)

Social services for adults

'Mrs Taylor' (not her real name for legal reasons) complained on behalf of her late mother that the council had:

-failed to introduce a deferred payment scheme for residential care fees within a reasonable period of time

-placed a charge on her mother's property without proper notification

The investigation showed that Mrs Taylor's complaints were justified. Councils were given powers and funding to introduce a deferred payment scheme in October 2001, but the council did not do this until three years later because of competing priorities. The ombudsman considered that some delay was acceptable, but that three years' delay was not. However, as a scheme would have been unlikely to have been in place in time to benefit Mrs Taylor's mother even if the council had introduced one earlier, no injustice had been caused.

The investigation also revealed that the standard letter used by the council to notify people of its intention to register a charge on a property was insufficiently clear and that this had caused Mrs Taylor to incur additional legal costs. The council had also incorrectly calculated the fee required to cancel the charge on the property.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and the council has agreed to:

-pay Mrs Taylor's additional legal costs of£59.75 and an amount of 95p interest on the overpayment of£441.16

-pay Mrs Taylor£100 compensation for her anxiety, time and trouble in pursuing this matter

-amend its standard letters to make it clear when a charge is being placed on a property

-advise service users and relatives of their right to seek legal advice when the imposition of a charge on a property is being considered

Findings of maladministration, but no injustice

Manchester City Council (04/C/1010)

Housing sales/leaseholds

'Mrs Baker' (not her real name for legal reasons) complained that the council misadvised her about her right to buy her home and that she should have received a discount on the purchase price.

The investigation found that costs for works carried out to the roof of the block in which Mrs Baker lived were applied only to maisonettes on the upper floor of the block, whereas the cost of maintaining the roof was apportioned amongst all tenants in the service charge.

The effect of the council's policy on discounts was that tenants of ground floor properties who applied to buy their homes were being dealt with more favourably in comparison with tenants of maisonettes on the upper floor. However the investigation showed that, even if a fairer system had been applied, Mrs Baker would still not have been entitled to a discount and so would not have been able to afford to buy her own home.

The ombudsman finds maladministration, and the council has agreed to her recommendation to undertake an immediate review of its policy of apportioning costs to avoid any disadvantage to one group of tenants over another in future.

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