Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 29 Mar 2019
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms B complains about the Council’s action in obtaining a County Court Judgement against her for her grandmother’s unpaid care home fees. The Ombudsman will not investigate the complaint because Ms B knew the disputed CCJ had been obtained in 2014 and the Council has now taken appropriate action to have the Judgement set aside.
- The complainant, who I refer to as Ms B, complains about the Council’s action in obtaining a County Court Judgement (CCJ) against her for unpaid fees relating to her grandmother’s stay in a care home. This has caused her distress and anxiety and impacted upon her ability to obtain credit.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
- it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
- it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- In considering the complaint I reviewed the information provided by Ms B and the Council. I gave Ms B the opportunity to comment on my draft decision and considered the comments she made.
What I found
- In 2014 the Council obtained a CCJ against Ms B for costs it said she had agreed to pay towards her grandmother’s care home fees. After the CCJ had been obtained Ms B contacted the Council to ask why it had taken this action. The Council told her that as she had previously signed an agreement to be responsible for the fees and had not paid them, it had taken court action to recover the monies owed. It told her if she disagreed with the Judgement she could contact the Court and ask for it to be set aside.
- In 2016 Ms B obtained a copy of the agreement in question and she told the Council the signature on it was not hers. The Council investigated her complaint about this but it was unable to conclude that she had not signed the form, that a fraud had been perpetrated against her or that the CCJ had been incorrectly entered against her. It advised her again that she could apply to the Court to have the Judgement set aside.
- At the end of 2018 the Council reviewed the outstanding arrears and wrote to Ms B about them. Ms B asked that the matter be reviewed again and earlier this year the Council decided, irrespective of the signature on the agreement, that it should not have taken recovery action against her.
- It apologised for its actions and confirmed it would be seeking to have the CCJ set aside so Ms B would no longer be responsible for the debt. It also confirmed it would be reviewing how it deals with situations where a third party might be held responsible for another person’s debts to prevent a repeat of what happened in Ms B’s case.
- Although it has taken a considerable period of time for the Council to reach the decision it now has, it took recovery action because it received no payments despite bills, reminders and a court warning letter being issued to Ms B. Ms B could have submitted a formal defence to the Court at the time of the CCJ application but did not do so and she did not apply to ask the Court to set aside the Judgement even though she had been advised of her right to do so in 2014 and 2016. This was unfortunate because it is likely, if she had taken this action, that matters would have been resolved sooner.
- The 12-month time restriction highlighted at paragraph 2 applies to Ms B’s complaint because she knew of the disputed CCJ back in 2014 and that the signature on the agreement was not hers in 2016. As well as contacting the Court, Ms B could also have brought her complaint to the Ombudsman earlier and I see no grounds which warrant exercising discretion to look at these matters now.
- Moreover, the Council has now taken appropriate action to resolve matters. As a resolution to her complaint, Ms B said she was seeking to have the CCJ set aside and to ensure no-one else would be put through what she had. The Council has met these outomes because it has apologised, applied to have the CCJ set aside and confirmed it will be reviewing its procedures to prevent a repeat of what happened to Ms B occurring in the future. As I consider this action to be a reasonable and proportionate outcome to the complaint the Ombudsman will not investigate it.
- The Ombudsman will not investigate this complaint. This is because Ms B knew the disputed CCJ had been obtained in 2014 and the Council has now taken appropriate action to have the Judgement set aside.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman