The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr C’s daughter, Mrs D, says the Council failed to invoice him for adult social care services by email, as requested, for over a year. It then presented a bill for nearly £9,000 which he could not pay. She says this caused her and Mr C stress and means he cannot afford necessary repairs on his home. The Council was at fault for its failure to send invoices by email. But this fault caused limited injustice. Mrs D knew what the services cost and how long Mr C had received them without receiving invoices by email. The Council has agreed to pay Mr C £100 and to accept a reasonable repayment plan.
- I have called the complainant Mr C. He is represented by his daughter, who I have called Mrs D. Mrs D says the Council failed to send her invoices for adult social care services and meals Mr C received. She says this allowed a large bill to accumulate causing them injustice in the form of stress and an inability to afford repairs to Mr C’s house
- The Council offered Mr C £100 in recognition of the injustice caused. Mrs D says this is insufficient. She has asked the Council to review the bill.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I wrote an enquiry letter to the Council. I considered information sent by Mrs D and the Council. I applied the relevant law and guidance.
- I sent a copy of my draft decision to Mrs D and the Council and invited comments which I considered before making my final decision.
What I found
What should happen
- Councils must provide care for adults in their area who require it. They must carry out a financial assessment to see if they can afford to pay. Councils can ask service users who can afford it to pay a contribution towards, or the full price of, the care provided.
- If a service user refuses to take a financial assessment, councils can charge the full rate.
- The Council provides a ‘meals on wheels’ service. Which is not a statutory requirement. At the relevant time, it charged £4.90 per meal.
- It also provides home care assistance through an independent contractor.
- Mr C is in his 90s. He has lived alone for some time. He cannot do so without assistance. His daughter, Mrs D, has power of attorney for him. She lives abroad. She has siblings who live near Mr C.
- In early April 2017, the Council began to provide a ‘meals on wheels’ service for Mr C. It did so until mid-March 2019. Meals cost £4.90 each. Mr C generally received 20 meals a week resulting in a bill of £98.00. It was occasionally less.
- From late May 2017, the Council also provided approximately seven hours of home-based support per week. Mr C received this care until April 2019. The weekly bill varied slightly but most weeks was approximately £110.
- The Council says that, between April 2017 and March 2018, it sent invoices by post to Mrs D at her address. Mrs D made payments via the Council website in late May 2017 and mid-July 2017.
- The Council issued its first invoice in late April 2017. This was sent to Mr C by post. The Council says Mrs D paid the invoice via the Council’s website by card. Some further invoices were paid before July 2017 but the Council says the account has been in arrears constantly since July 2017.
- In early June 2017, the Council sent a financial assessment application to Mrs D and asked her to complete it. She did not do so. The Council wrote to her again in early July 2017 to say that, if she did not complete the assessment, Mr C would be charged the full rate and an administration fee of £150.
- The Council wrote to her again in late July to tell her it was now charging for services at the full rate. It enclosed a breakdown of the weekly cost.
- In August 2017, Mrs D replied. She thanked the Council for its support and assistance. She said that she was out of the country much of the time. She said that she and her siblings were ‘looking at options’ and therefore could not provide the Council with a financial assessment.
- She said ‘We are aware of the consequences of this choice and are therefore asking you to provide the total sum of the full cost of the services plus a ‘one off’ administration fee of £150 that our father has received so far. Should final analysis of our father’s situation not provide proper and suitable option, we would revisit your offer of providing the financial assessment’.
- The Council responded thanking Mrs D for clarifying the situation. The officer said she would send a statement of account. The Council sent an invoice for social care for June and July for just over £1000.
- In early March 2018 Mrs D asked the Council to send social care invoices to her via email because she was no longer living in the country. Mrs D also asked for the meals on wheels invoices to be sent to the same email address. The Council says an officer entered Mrs D’s email address on the system correctly.
- In March and April 2018, Mrs D wrote several emails to the Council challenging individual invoices from 2017. She said she had paid the invoice for November 2017 and was aware two further were outstanding. Mrs D paid some invoices in June 2018.
- Mrs D says a Council officer told her sister, in person, at Mr C’s house in late March 2019 that Mr C owed over £8,000. She contacted the Council and told it that she had not received any invoices by email, as she had requested a year earlier. She asked for the bills to be sent to her again.
- The Council sent invoices and a statement of account for approximately £9,000 to her. Mrs D contacted the Council to question the amount owed.
- Since then, at Mrs D’s request, the Council has checked the account and confirmed that all the payments she has made have been credited to the account.
- Mrs D complained formally. She said:
- The Council had not acted on her request to send all invoices by email made in March 2018;
- She had received no response in over a year from the care team, the finance team or the debt team; and
- She had requested separate invoices for meals on wheels and social care.
- It did add Mrs D’s correct email address to the account in March 2018. This should have meant that Mrs D received the emails. Mrs D did not tell the Council she had not received them until February 2019 so the Council did not know until then that she had not had them. On learning of the problem, the Council deleted the address from the system and re-entered it. This solved the problem. The Council apologised for a ‘system glitch’.
- The Council apologised for the fact that no one had been in touch with her about her concerns about the service received before and said it had asked the relevant people to contact her.
- In April 2019, the Council resent 34 unpaid invoices to Mrs D.
Was there fault causing injustice
- The Council cannot explain why Mrs D did not receive invoices between March 2018 and March 2019. It has apologised for a ‘glitch’. This was a service failure and so was fault. It caused Mrs C some distress. The council has offered Mrs D £100 in recognition of this fault.
- Mrs D says this offer was inadequate. In my view, it was fair. By March 2018, Mr C had already been receiving services for nearly a year at approximately £200 per week. Therefore, he already owed a sizeable sum. Mrs D had seen and paid various invoices. She knew what services Mr C received, how much they cost, how much she had paid and, therefore, how much was likely to be owed. Therefore, the injustice caused by failing to send the email invoices was limited.
- The Council also sent statements of account to Mr C’s house and sent invoices to Mrs D’s house. It says it also sent two reminder letters for every unpaid invoice. Mrs D and her siblings could have set up some system for monitoring her and Mr C’s post. It is not the Council’s fault that they did not.
- I find the Council looked into all Mrs D’s concerns thoroughly. It adjusted the bill making reductions for services Mr C did not receive.
- In summer 2017, Mrs D and her family refused a financial assessment. Therefore, Mr C paid full rates for the services he received. This was not the Council’s fault.
- The Council has not taken any legal action to recover the debt while this dispute runs on and has said it will consider proposals for a reasonable payment plan.
- Therefore, while I have found the Council was at fault, I have also found its offer is sufficient to remedy that fault.
- The Council has apologised and reduced the outstanding balance by £100 in recognition of any distress caused. It has said it will agree to a reasonable repayment proposal. This is an acceptable remedy.
- I have found the Council was at fault but that it has remedied that fault. I have closed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman