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King's Lynn & West Norfolk Council (20 007 236)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax support

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 09 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the Council’s failure to make reasonable adjustments when dealing with his enquiries about Council Tax Support. We do not find fault with how the Council dealt with this matter.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains about the Council’s failure to make reasonable adjustments when dealing with his enquiries about council tax support.
  2. He says this constituted disability discrimination and a detrimental effect on his health and well-being.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have only investigated Mr X’s complaint about the Council’s failure to make reasonable adjustments. His complaint to the Council was also about his application for Council Tax Support (CTS) and valuation of his second property. Mr X had a right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal and so this is outside of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction for the reason set out in paragraph 5 below.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
  3. The courts have said that where someone has used their right of appeal, reference or review or remedy by way of proceedings in any court of law, the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction to investigate. This is the case even if the appeal did not or could not provide a complete remedy for all the injustice claimed. (R v The Commissioner for Local Administration ex parte PH (1999) EHCA Civ 916)
  4. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened
  5. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke with the complainant and reviewed the information provided.
  2. I made enquiries with the Council and reviewed the relevant law.
  3. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. Any comments received were considered before making this final decision.

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What I found

Relevant legislation and Council policy

  1. The Equality Act 2010 says an individual or organisation that provides a service to the public, such as councils, must not treat someone worse just because of one or more “protected characteristics”. Protected characteristics include people with disabilities.
  2. When the duty arises, the public body is under a positive and proactive duty to look at removing or preventing obstacles to a disabled person accessing its services. If the adjustments are reasonable, it must make them.
  3. The Council has an Equalities Policy. This confirms its commitment to complying with the law when providing services to the public.

What happened

  1. Mr X has several chronic health conditions. These affect his vision, concentration and his ability to compose letters.
  2. He contacted the Council about possible entitlement to CTS in respect of a second property that he intended to sell. His entitlement depended on the value of this second property that had been determined by the Valuation Office. The valuation used by the Council meant he was not entitled to CTS.
  3. Mr X disagreed with this valuation. Mr X was advised to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal which I understand he has now done.
  4. In dealing with this matter, Mr X says the Council failed to make reasonable adjustments that were necessary because of his disability. This formed part of his complaint to the Council. In particular, he says the Council:
      1. denied his request to speak to the Chief Executive when dissatisfied with the conduct of officers handing his enquiries;
      2. denied his request to deal with matters over the phone, instead of in writing;
      3. did not allow extra time to submit documents; and
      4. did not provide him with a single point of contact.
  5. He says that while some adjustments were eventually made, this only happened after he complained. He says disabled people should not be treated in this way and have to fight to be treated equally.
  6. The Council did not uphold his complaint. In response to the Ombudsman the Council says it made the following reasonable adjustments:
      1. Extended time periods for Mr X to provide information and supporting documentation.
      2. Reopened his CTS claim despite him not providing information requested (as opposed to asking him to submit a new claim).
      3. Only asked Mr X to put his complaint in writing to be certain it was recorded accurately and in his own words. When Mr X objected to this, his complaint was taken over the phone.
      4. Made a single point of contact available.
      5. Offered to send an officer to Mr X’s home to complete his CTS form.
  7. The Council says Mr X has been rude to staff over the phone on several occasions and was advised that if this behaviour continued, he would be placed on the Council’s “Unreasonably Persistent Complainants Register”.

Analysis

  1. It is not the role of the Ombudsman to decide whether Mr X requests were either related to his disability, or reasonable, or whether the Council could offer alternative adjustments. But we can look at how the Council considered his requests for reasonable adjustments.
  2. At various points Mr X made several requests for reasonable adjustments set out at paragraph 18 above and I am satisfied these were properly considered. The Council has explained that most requested adjustments were made (paragraph 20).
  3. Those that were not, for example, personal contact with the Chief Executive, the Council explained to Mr X why this was not possible. This was a position the Council was entitled to take.
  4. While I understand Mr X was often frustrated by the Council’s response to these requests, the records show Mr X had several conversations with different officers that followed a similar theme.
  5. Mr X was unhappy with the Council’s decision to use the same property valuation as the Valuation Office. This led to Mr X becoming frustrated when explaining his position to officers. He believed the Council was interpreting the legislation incorrectly.
  6. The Council applied its policy and told Mr X he should appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. Officers recorded in the case that Mr X became rude and argumentative when explaining this to him. Mr X said he was being discriminated against and complained about individual officers. On occasion, the records confirm phone calls were terminated by officers.
  7. In response to my enquiries the Council had provided statements staff made after dealings with Mr X. They say Mr X became argumentative and challenging when they did not agree with him.
  8. The Ombudsman makes decisions on the balance of probabilities. In this complaint the issues relate to Mr X’s perception about how he has been treated, particularly over the phone.
  9. The Council does not keep recordings of telephone calls and so I have been unable to make an independent assessment of what was said. I do not criticise the Council for not having recordings available because there is no requirement to do so.
  10. In the absence of such recordings, I must rely on the contemporaneous case records made by officers and what Mr X told me happened.
  11. Officers have a duty to explore reasonable adjustments. But they can also expect callers to treat them with respect. Mr X’s view is that officers have been disrespectful and incompetent. Conversely, the Council’s records demonstrate concerns about Mr X’s behaviour during multiple calls, saying he had been rude and demeaning to staff. It is neither proportionate or possible for me to try and reconcile each conflicting account of what happened during every call. However, I have seen no evidence which suggests Council staff acted in an unreasonable way.
  12. My conclusion, having considered all the available evidence, is the Council properly considered Mr X’s request for reasonable adjustments and acted without fault.

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Final decision

  1. The Council’s actions were not affected by fault when dealing with Mr X when he applied for Council Tax Support. I am satisfied the Council properly considered his requests for reasonable adjustments. On this basis I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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