Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 17 Dec 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr and Mrs X complain the Council has not reimbursed legal costs after forcing them to seek a child arrangement order. There is no evidence the Council forced Mr and Mrs X to take court action. Mr and Mrs X’s grandchildren came to live with them as the result of a private arrangement with their daughter.
- Mr and Mrs X complain the Council has not reimbursed legal costs after forcing them to seek a child arrangement order in respect of their grandchildren.
Mr and Mrs X say they have debts as a result of having to take court action.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
- discussed the issues with the complainant;
- sent my draft decision to both the Council and the complainant and taken account of their comments before making my final decision.
What I found
- Mr and Mrs X have three grandchildren. The oldest, B, came to live with them in 2016 with the agreement of their mother, Ms Z, before any social care involvement.
- The grandchildren stayed with Mr and Mrs X in 2017 while Ms Z was on her honeymoon. During this period, Mr and Mrs X went to the family home with the children to collect some belongings and were shocked at the state of it. They said it was dirty with food and crockery under the beds. They said the beds were filthy and the sheets had not been changed for months. They also found syringes and medication lying around.
- The Council became involved with B and the middle grandchild, C, in June 2017. Mrs X contacted the Council in saying C was very distressed, scared of Ms Z and that she did not want to return home. C had spoken with a Council officer the day before who said she had to return home as the Council had completed an assessment and it did not have any concerns about C returning home.
- An officer visited Mr and Mrs X’s home that evening and spoke to C. The officer offered to take C home and speak with Ms Z. C said if she was taken home she would just run away again. The officer explained the dangers of running away and that if she felt scared she should call the police or another adult she trusts.
- B, C and their brother, D, became the subjects of a Child in Need plan. On 8 June an officer visited Mr and Mrs X as part of this process. Mr and Mrs X explained their concerns about C. They showed the officer photographs of Ms Z’s home. The officer said she had visited and had no concerns about the condition of the house.
- During the visit the officer suggested mediation. The notes of the meeting say Mrs X was willing to take part at some point in the future. The officer also spoke to C during the visit. The notes show she explained she could not say C could stay with her grandparents, only a judge (or a police officer if she was in danger) could do this.
- Social care continued to be involved with B, C and D. C would not return home and continued to stay with Mr and Mrs X. The information provided shows Ms Z was not happy with this and wanted C to return home but by September she reluctantly agreed so long as C came home for dinner each evening.
- Mr and Mrs X sought advice from a solicitor. During a visit to Mr and Mrs X in September 2017, Mrs X told the Council her solicitor said she could apply for a Child Arrangement Order (CAO) or Special Guardianship Order (SGO). The officer told Mrs X she could not give advice.
- Mr and Mrs X’s solicitor wrote to the Council in October 2017. The letter says Mr and Mrs X require parental responsibility for B and C who are now living with them. The solicitor said he believed the Council would support Mr and Mrs X in making an application to the court. The letter said the solicitor had discussed the pros and cons for the CAO and SGO with Mr and Mrs X and advised an SGO would be more appropriate. The solicitor asked what order the Council would support and whether it would also provide financial support towards the court costs.
- The Council replied saying C was living with Mr and Mrs X as a private arrangement between them and Ms Z. It said it had not advised Mr and Mrs X to seek an SGO and would not provide funding to do this. It said if Ms Z agrees C can remain with Mr and Mrs X then a CAO would be more appropriate but this would be a private arrangement and it would not provide any funding. The Council said its view was that C could be cared for by Ms Z as there are no safeguarding concerns to prevent this.
- Mr and Mrs X decided to go ahead with CAO for B and C. This was granted in January 2018 and they continue to live with Mr and Mrs X.
- Mr and Mrs X says they were forced to take court action in respect of their grandchildren. The say this has been very expensive and they are in debt as a result.
- Mr and Mrs X say that during a conversation between them and a social worker they were told that if they didn’t get a court order the children would go into care. They say as loving grandparents they could not allow this to happen and so they sought a CAO.
- There is no record of this conversation and the Council denies it ever said this to Mr and Mrs X. I have therefore considered the available information in order to consider whether the Council should provide financial support.
- I have read all the case notes for B, C and D. These notes are confidential and cannot be shared with Mr and Mrs X. There was a lot of contact between the family and the Council from June 2017 onwards. Several visits were made to both Mrs and Mrs X’s and Ms Z’s home. The Council also met with all three children individually and with Ms Z and Mr and Mrs X. The notes do not show that at any time the Council felt Ms Z’s home was not suitable for C. The main concern was the animosity between the adults and how this affected the children.
- The Council clearly told both Mr and Mrs X and C that she could live with Ms Z and at no point did it ever consider this to be unsuitable. I accept Mr and Mrs X do not agree with the Council’s view on this but there is nothing to suggest this professional judgement was not properly reached.
- Mr and Mrs X had a solicitor who was able to give them advice about all possible options. In a letter dated October 2017, the solicitor said an SGO was the preferred option but eventually Mr and Mrs X applied for and were granted a CAO. I can only assume the solicitor provided advice to Mr and Mrs X about all the implications of each order including the financial implications.
- The Council’s letter to Mr and Mrs X’s solicitor, before court action began, clearly stated it would not provide any financial assistance for court costs. The Council was clear any decision for C to live with Mr and Mrs X was a private family arrangement. I have not seen any evidence with contradicts this view.
- Mr and Mrs X are firm in their belief that they were coerced by the Council to take court action. While I cannot take a view on what exactly they were told as there is no record of this conversation, I have considered the wider context and other information provided. There is no reference in any case notes to indicate the Council ever considered removing the children. No child protection action was taken by the Council as it did not consider Ms Z’s home unsuitable for C.
- As the information supports the Council’s view that the decision for C to live with Mr and Mrs X was a private arrangement, I cannot criticise its decision to not provide any financial support for the costs incurred.
- I will now complete my investigation as there is no evidence of fault in the Council’s decision not to provide assistance with court costs.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman