There was a significant failure in the way Brighton & Hove City Council made a woman bankrupt for unpaid council tax and parking fines.
The Ombudsman said: “I do not criticise the Council’s general policy in this case. It included a requirement to check whether the person might be vulnerable. On balance, however, I would say that the absence of a requirement to check specifically with Adult Social Care meant that the application of the policy was flawed, and was a significant failure in the procedure.”
However, the Ombudsman could not say that the outcome would have been different if there had been no failure, only that it might have been, and so the injustice to the complainant was limited to her uncertainty as to whether her case might have been treated differently.
‘Ms Lowe’ (not her real name for legal reasons) complained about the Council taking bankruptcy proceedings against her for unpaid council tax and parking fines. Ms Lowe did not respond to any notifications, letters or calls in person to her home about the debt. Having failed to make contact with her, the Council commenced bankruptcy proceedings.
The Council’s procedure at the time of the events required it to consider whether the debtor might be vulnerable, but there was no requirement to check with Adult Social Care. Ms Lowe said that she was vulnerable at the time; she was mentally unwell and so unable to deal with her affairs. Ms Lowe had been in touch with Adult Social Care, and although no assessment had yet been carried out, she was known to the team.
The Ombudsman found that the Council’s bankruptcy procedure was flawed because there was no requirement to check whether the debtor was known to Adult Social Care. As a result, it was not possible to be sure that all the information about the person’s potential vulnerability would be available.
In this case, if the Council’s recovery officers had found out that Ms Lowe was known to Adult Social Care, it is possible that the bankruptcy action would not have proceeded, but the Ombudsman could not decide that definitely would have been the case.
The Council’s maladministration caused an injustice to Ms Lowe only in terms of uncertainty as to whether the outcome might have been different. In accordance with the Ombudsman's recommendations, the Council paid Ms Lowe compensation of £250 and apologised to her for the failure in the procedure.
LGO satisfied with Council's response: 11 May 2010