Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 23 Mar 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: There was no fault by the Council in the way it decided that the complainant’s niece was not eligible for financial support to meet the cost of attending university.
- Miss B is complaining on behalf of her niece, S. Miss B complains that the Council failed to treat S as a looked after child when it placed her with Miss B in 2007 and as a result, has not provided the family with any support. In particular, Miss B complains that the Council is not providing any financial support for S to attend university.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated the Council’s decision to not provide financial support for S to attend university. I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint about the lack of support since 2007 for the reasons explained in the last section of this statement.
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 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 have:
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant;
- discussed the issues with the complainant;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council has provided; and
- given the Council and the complainant the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- The law says every local authority must provide accommodation to children within their area who need it, if the person who has been caring for them is prevented (whether or not permanently, and for whatever reason) from providing suitable accommodation or care.
- The principle in law is that all children should, wherever possible, be cared for by their family and friends. So a council may fulfil its legal duty to accommodate a child by placing them with relatives or friends. The child would then be classed as a ‘looked after child’. The relative or friend would undergo a fostering assessment and once approved would receive a fostering allowance to help support the child.
- Parents may make informal family care arrangements directly with friends or family. In these cases the child is not considered looked after and the carer may not receive financial support because the parents are expected to support the child financially.
- In the case of a child who was looked after immediately prior to the making of a Special Guardianship Order, the child, special guardian or parent has a right to receive an assessment by the local authority for support services, which may include financial support. Government guidance recommends that such support is means tested.
- Care leavers may be entitled to advice and assistance, including financial support with expenses connected with their education, if they meet the definition of an eligible child, a relevant child or a former relevant child. The definitions are as follows:
- Eligible children are young people, aged 16 or 17, who have been looked after for at least 13 weeks since the age of 14, and who are currently looked after.
- Relevant children are young people aged 16 or 17 who are now no longer looked after, who were looked after for a total period of 13 weeks after reaching the age of 14, including at least one day while they were 16 or 17.
- Former relevant children are young people aged 18-21 who have been either eligible children or relevant children.
- S went to live with her aunt, Miss B, in 2007 when she was 8 years old. In 2008, the courts granted a Special Guardianship Order to Miss B which gave her parental responsibility for S.
- When S was 17 years old, Miss B asked the Council to provide a care plan for S and financial support for S to attend university in September 2017. The Council told Miss B that S was not eligible for support because she had never been a looked after child. It said that it became involved in 2007 after the family made a private arrangement for S to live with Miss B.
- Miss B asked to appeal the Council’s decision to not provide S with any financial support to attend university. She said that in 2007 the Council asked if S could stay with her and told her that if she did not agree, S would have to go into care. Miss B said that in 2015 and 2016, the Council provided letters which confirmed that S was in care so that she could get a grant for college.
- In the Council’s response it said that even if S had been in care between 2007 and 2008, she would still not qualify for support because to qualify, she would have to have been in care for a period of 13 weeks after reaching the age of 14, including at least one day while she was 16 or 17.
- I have seen a copy of the letter the Council provided to Miss B in 2016 to enable S to get a grant for college, but not the letter provided in 2015. The letter I have seen says that Miss B was granted a Special Guardianship Order in respect of S; it does not say that she was in care. I do not consider it likely that the Council provided a letter to Miss B confirming that S was previously a looked after child or in care.
- Councils only provide support to care leavers when certain eligibility criteria are met, as explained in paragraph 11 above. Even if S should have been treated as a looked after child in 2007 and 2008, she would not be entitled to financial support with university costs now. I am satisfied that there was no fault in the way the Council decided that S was not eligible for a care plan or for financial support to meet the cost of attending university.
- I have completed my investigation and do not uphold Miss B’s complaint. There was no fault by the Council.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I have not investigated Miss B’s complaint that the Council did not provide any financial support when S went to live with her in 2007 or any support after the Special Guardianship Order was granted in 2008. The further an investigation takes place from the events to be investigated the more difficult it is to establish the material facts with reasonable confidence. Even if some evidence is available, we would have to be particularly careful to ensure that it is reliable and provides a full picture. In many cases we cannot apply current standards, guidance, or professional expectations to historical situations.
- I am not confident that we could reach a fair, sound and meaningful decision on this matter so long after the events in question. I also consider it would have been reasonable for Miss B to complain to the Council and the Ombudsman at the time if she considered the Council should have been providing support. For these reasons, I have not exercised discretion to investigate whether the Council should have provided financial support when S went to live with Miss B in 2007 or after the Special Guardianship Order was granted in 2008.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman